Now that both political conventions have ended and we’ve headed into the final stretch for Election Day (November 6 – remember to vote!), I’ll try to offer some observations on Christians and politics. They are prompted by trying to keep track of TV, social media and the blogosphere. I’m still trying to figure out what I think.
Although (apparently) I’m among that minority of United Methodist clergy who is not a registered Democrat, I loved Bill Clinton’s speech. It outshined everybody else’s, in both conventions, by miles. President Obama gave him a run for it last night, but even his fell short. Clinton’s was an amazing display, combining Policy 101 with sermonic pathos. After reading a Washington Post analysis the following day, I can see “fudges” and I can criticize, but I still loved the speech. I wish more of both conventions could have been like it!
Now, thinking of Election Day, I’m getting pretty lathered over how too many Christians go at the political process. Obviously, I believe Jesus’ disciples must exercise responsible citizenship. Both these terms are important. We should take responsibility and act and speak responsibly, which means that we pay attention, listen carefully, make the best judgments we know how, on the basis of trustworthy information. ”Citizen” reminds us of the focus of our allegiance – to the nation, not to a political party. Being partisan is not the problem. Hostility, a “take no prisoners” approach to politics is most definitely a problem. And Christians should not participate in the over-the-top political theatre even while participating in the political process.
Which leads me to something I know I should avoid, but cannot. Blog posts and Facebook status updates and comments from a number of United Methodist clergy illustrate the problem. (Not all or even most clergy are guilty of my complaint, but far too many are.) I think religious leaders – if we clergy are leaders – have to exercise special caution about how we state our political views. I must say, I have been often quite disturbed and sometimes even alarmed at comments and links UM clergy attach to their Facebook status or elsewhere. I found myself wondering, “Does this pastor have any church members on the other side of the issue? What might those members think if they knew of their pastor’s open disdain for their candidate?” That scenario works for both ends of the political spectrum.
Let’s go on a little side trip. With so many cable channels, not to mention the wide variety of offerings on the Internet, why do Fox and MSNBC get all the attention? For the Democratic Convention, I watched (mostly) PBS, with David Brooks, Mark Shields, Gwen Ifill, Judy Woodruff and Ray Suarez. If you don’t like Fox or MSNBC, don’t give them any attention. If more people did that, they would shrivel and fall off the TV vine. And by the way, I don’t have anything (or much, anyway) against Fox or MSNBC. I don’t watch Bill O’Reilly, but I like Greta Van Susteren. I don’t care much for “Hardball,” mainly because Chris Matthews never lets anyone finish a sentence. I like “Morning Joe.” We can all mix it up a little, can’t we?
I think it’s silly how people go after one or the other cable news channels. They are almost all (except PBS, in my view) engaging in such over-the-top hype in order to get people to stay tuned that it borders on pathetic. Most of the programming on these channels has nothing to do with news. It might be a good exercise for us to talk about what criteria help us decide what “news” is and what it is not. I’m sure journalism students have to do this sort of thing, no?
And religious leaders – as leaders – should have to do the same thing. We might even be able to help other people learn how to exercise responsible citizenship. If leaders lead, then wouldn’t this kind of leadership be a good outcome? We all decry the sour political climate. Maybe we clergy ought to try to help do something about it.
So, you see, I am not calling for political quietism from religious leaders. As I said, we must exercise responsible citizenship. But we also need to remember a larger principle: followers of Jesus are commanded to exercise discipleship in his Kingdom. While we are citizens of the United States, we are citizens of another kingdom beyond the United States. If Jesus is Lord, then…
This tension makes responsible citizenship truly a constant challenge and we must exercise vigilance. Christians around the world all live under some sort of regime, some “kingdom.” We Americans are fortunate to live in a really good one. We love liberty. But, for Christians (and especially leaders), our primary job is to bear witness to the Word-made-flesh, the One who is above all things. And we have to figure out how to do it in this world (ergo, I’m not spiritualizing “Lord”), which means we’re going to get our hands dirty, get cross with one another, make some mistakes, need to repent and apologize and try again.
To say this all another way, my jaw drops sometimes at how confidently religious leaders express their opinions about complex political matters. Since I work on a college campus, I have the privilege of asking questions of real experts – professors whose academic lives are given to studying American politics. These folk are really good and they disagree with each other! If the experts, who spend the lion’s share of their professional lives studying these things can offer significantly divergent opinions, then maybe I’d better just slow down a little bit in my pontificating about what this or that candidate “really” means.
So, please, fellow Christians of all political stripes – and especially United Methodist clergy leaders of all political stripes – let us diligently, prayerfully, reverently, humbly exercise responsible citizenship. Let us do so with vigor, energy, strong opinions and love. And, most of all, let us remember who we work for. And, just in case that’s not clear, I do not mean The United Methodist Church. I mean a far greater Power.
Folks, seeking to make my spasmodic blogging more consistent and, perhaps, to expand these conversations, I’d like to direct you to a newly active website: http://www.stephenrankin.com. There you can subscribe to the blog and learn of other possibilities for interaction.
One other announcement: beginning September 17 and going through mid-November, I’ll be leading a reading/discussion group online, using the book Aiming at Maturity that I wrote last year. The discussion group is housed at http://www.beadisciplecom. If you would like to enroll in the group, go to
Sometime around 1985, if I remember correctly, in the middle of my seminary tutelage, I had a conversation with a fellow student that has stuck with me over the years. I include the date so that the reader will know just how long this topic has been on my mind, not to mention how long we’ve been discussing it publicly.
I cannot remember how the subject of sexuality came up. We were in the middle of a peer review of a paper, a student discussion led by a faculty member. I was the one in the hot seat that day. I had not written about sexuality, so I don’t remember how or why the subject arose. But I do remember this comment from my fellow student, an out lesbian (which I knew before this moment). She said to me, “If you don’t accept my sexuality, you don’t accept me.”
I have heard or read this claim dozens of times since that day. As I said last week, I hate writing about sexuality because it is so personal, so painful, especially right now. I feel a growing alarm about statements I hear and read, so, once again, I feel I must say something. And I want to analyze this claim, that if I do not “accept” (I use scare quotes for a reason, which will become evident in a moment) someone’s sexuality, then I don’t “accept” her or him.
First, let’s recognize the statement for what it is – a truth claim. In other words, this person was not, at that moment anyway, describing her experience or simply offering her take on the matter. She was making a claim that had direct bearing on my view. More pointedly, her opinion was a judgment of my opinion, pure and simple.
Now, let me tell you why I’m alarmed. In the current popular hostilities, “not accepting” seems increasingly to mean “hate.” The if-then logic goes like this: if I don’t accept your sexuality, then I hate you. This is a huge and dangerous jump – for everyone. And there is a similarly ominous corollary claim: if you hold a “traditional” view of sexuality and marriage, even if you don’t engage in hate speech or do anything actively to oppose gays and lesbians, etc., you still are guilty of helping to maintain a threatening heterosexist system tantamount to the Anti-semitism of Nazi Germany. And we all know how that ended. Peter Gomes makes this very claim in his book, The Good Book.
There are a number of angles to take on this most difficult of conversations and I’m going to try to offer some coherent thought, without being able to take the space to go step by step on everything I’m thinking. (This blog is already much longer than I prefer.) Let me also readily acknowledge that I could be wrong. But here is my first point: I can be wrong in my thinking about your understanding of yourself, your identity, and your behavior (in one class of behaviors – sexual), but being wrong in my opinion about how you understand and present yourself is not the same as my lack of esteem and love for you. They are two different sets of thoughts. I can still like you very much, affirm your right to live as you please and disagree with your understanding of yourself. I may just be wrong about you while still esteeming you. So, it seems to me at the start, that claiming that my being wrong is the same as hating you is a plain non sequitur. And a dangerous one because it breeds suspicion and fear. There is an irony at work here that I would love to comment on, but I’ll have to leave it at that.
Now back to my fellow-student’s claim. Let’s think of “identity” and “sexuality” as two circles. In her comment, she seems to be saying, without actually stating it this way, that the circle of who she is and the circle of her sexuality are the same. There is an exact proportional identity. In some sense, it seems, “identity” and “sexuality” completely co-inhere. The implication follows that there is therefore no conceptual room for me to think about my fellow student in any other way. And if I do, it must be because I am motivated by something sinister and morally wrong – an irrational fear (homophobia) or something like it.
I think the position I just sketched is an extremely difficult one to sustain and support. There is far more to a person than sexuality. (At the least we ought to be able to have a respectful discussion about this point!) We all know people who do not want to be limited in their identity in this way. They own their sexuality without problem, but they are also competent professionals and colleagues, neighbors joining us for cookouts and sports fans and musicians and a host of other qualities that make them who they are. They want to live in freedom and dignity, but they don’t want to make an issue of their sexuality.
So, you see, I think I really can disagree with someone’s claim on (what look to me like) good logical grounds and I can still love that person very much. In fact, I do. When discussing other topics, this is obvious and we all know it. Whether I love someone or not has little to do with how I evaluate a statement that person makes. Why, then, do we seem unable to apply this same logic to our discussions about sexuality?
Now I come to the meaning of the word “accept” used above. Remember, the claim I’m working with here is that if I don’t accept someone’s sexuality, I don’t accept that person. It seems to me that “accept” in this statement actually means that I must morally affirm and agree with that person’s sexual self-understanding. Or, to say it this way, it appears that”sexuality” and “identity” mean the same thing. Part of the difficulty with this claim is that it trades on an understanding of “accept” that, so far as I can tell, we do not use in any other situation. The truth is, we very commonly accept one another without agreeing with one another on all manner of other issues. If sexuality is that different, such that we must dramatically alter how we use language around it, then someone needs to help me understand what makes sexuality that different.
You might object that I’m not taking account of bias or subjective feelings, etc. Of course I am. I’m fully aware of my biases and I know that language has power and talking about “logic” has its own power dimension, as if appealing to “logic” somehow makes my thoughts more important and impact-ful. Yes, language has power, but one of the reasons it has power is because it helps us talk about what we believe to be true and real. Again, I wish people saw the irony, but apparently we don’t.
You’ll notice that, even though I am a Christian, I have not mentioned the Bible once. Part of my agonizing over the raw public animosity is how much time we waste arguing back and forth about what the Bible does or does not say. It is a legitimate concern to search the scriptures, but there are quite a few other questions besides just what the Bible says that we Christians need to engage if we really want to have a serious, respectful and substantive discussion. Can we please stop using the Bible as a tool in the culture wars?
So, I come back to my major concern: the either-or logic that demands either full approval or hateful rejection and possible violence. Let me say it again: I could be wrong in my thinking about sexuality. Off and on since 1985, I’ve been reading, thinking, praying, listening and talking. And I still am. I have two books on my desk right now, written and edited by serious scholars, gay men in long-term relationships. One is a historical study and the other deals with theoretical questions about sexual identity. (By the way, so far I’ve read much more in these books about “desire” than I have about “identity.” Even among those who fully support gay marriage and easily affirm same-sex activity, the term “identity” is apparently a challenge to understand.) But even if I’m wrong – even if I just “don’t get it,” it is still a dangerous, destructive jump to conclude that I therefore must hate gay people.
Finally, not one thing I’ve written in this blog actually says anything about what I think about sexuality per se. I know that you can scour through my comments and read between the lines and draw your own conclusions. But be very careful when you do. You might be wrong. My sole purpose in this post has been to focus on one of the problems I think I see in how we talk about the issue. That’s it.
With everything in me, I don’t want to write this post. But given the Chik-Fil-A controversy and, more broadly, the constant attention to same-sex-related topics in the news, on Facebook, and basically everywhere I turn in daily life, I feel I must. Fair warning: there is more heat in this post than I’d like. And my words won’t be as “worked out” as I’d like. But I am pleading for a little bit of sanity and charity. So I’m sticking my neck out and my nose in.
To try to keep the aim of my post in focus, let me lay down a couple of qualifications. Right now, my attention is on the so-called progressive anger at Chik-Fil-A and at the unwise, unguarded and foolish statements of people like Rahm Emanuel. I want anyone who might wonder about my intentions, however, to understand that I’m not any happier with the way the conservative culture warriors go at this issue, either. When First Baptist Church, Dallas, puts “Gay is not OK” on the sign out in front of their building, they are contributing to the problem rather than the solution. They made a political statement, not a pastoral one. It was a slogan, a sound bite. I’m not saying that people at First Baptist are horrible, awful people. They are my brothers and sisters in Christ. I’m just trying to say that putting a slogan on a church sign on such a sensitive topic is a foolish and clumsy and potentially (at the very least) cruel way of operating.
But as I said, I’m more concerned at this moment with the either-or thinking that attends the Chik-Fil-A controversy. Apparently, we -the public – have two options. We can either get on board with full, unqualified approval of same-sex activity, including and especially gay marriage or we can be smoked out into the bright light of day as the bigots and haters that we evidently are.
Are these my only options? Really? Don’t make me make that choice.
Please don’t set up the false dichotomy, the “either-or” of unreserved approval or unqualified condemnation. These are not the only two choices.
The truth is, most of us don’t know exactly what we think about same sex attraction, sexual identity, same sex marriage and any other of the numerous related topics. We have opinions, yes, but we’re not 100% sure of our opinions. Most people just want to get along, be good neighbors. Most people don’t want anyone to suffer. We want people to lead good and productive lives. Gay, bi-, trans-, straight, whoever. We can’t stand slurs, sick jokes, or bullying. Whatever we think about moral questions and policy matters, we want peaceful relations and fairness for all. Our hearts are torn. We have opinions and we know those opinions in some ways “go against” people we love.
If you call yourself a progressive and you simply cannot possibly understand why anyone like a Dan Cathy (or me) might think the way he does, then instead of calling for his head, listen. You may think you have science and rationality on your side. And you may. You may think that you understand civil and human rights better than the rest of us. And you may. But you also may not. You may not know everything there is to know about sexuality. Or morality. Or how to think about them. You might actually learn something by listening to your opponents. (I know, conservatives need to do the same thing. But stay on point here for a minute.) It’s time for a little epistemic humility from the progressives – the noisy ones, at least.
I deplore and repudiate hatred toward anyone. But I also do not believe that the only compassionate conclusion regarding same sex activity is unqualified approval. That very thought puts me at ideological odds with people whom I love deeply, closely. But don’t you dare say that I’m homophobic, or that I’m guilty of bad motive, or that I’m just not well-informed enough.
Do not patronize, demonize or politicize. Don’t make me make a dangerous and false choice between two phoney options. Don’t make me make that choice. I won’t do it.
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” Jesus told his disciples (Mt. 19:24). This comment came on the heels of his conversation with the rich young man who turned away sorrowfully, deciding he could not follow Jesus on Jesus’ terms.
There is a lot more going on in this story than the usual morality tale we get about wealth and the Christian life. First, the disciples were shocked, perhaps because they associated wealth with divine blessing (as some of the Proverbs suggest) and here Jesus is turning that belief on its head: wealth is a burden, a temptation, maybe a curse, not necessarily a sign of divine favor.
So, in a strange mental reversal, this saying of Jesus actually prompts me to recognize my bigotry about the wealthy. As I mentioned in the previous post, I am worried about how we United Methodists talk and think almost entirely in categories. Not just us United Methodists, of course, have this problem, but this is a family squabble I’m trying to have. I complained that categories tell us not much about each other. Now it’s time for me to admit my own use of categories.
As I mentioned, I grew up poor and, try as I might, I feel a little unsteady and self-conscious around wealthy people. I feel that dirt under my fingernails feeling, like maybe one of “them” is looking at me as if I don’t belong, as if I’m not quite as good as… If I don’t watch my soul, that feeling of unease can turn to resentment. I’m ashamed of it.
Resentment is a feeling people seem to have in abundance these days. Just think about how we talk about “the 1%.” As if somehow they have money that really belongs to us; as if they have stolen it from us.
Therefore, to complicate things, let’s go for a little cyber ride. A Wall Street Journal blog from June 2011 tells us that we have a record number of millionaires (based on net worth) in the USA (
). Hah! Just as we suspected. More telling, in 2011, the number of billionaires was on the rise, as well.
But then, a year later we have this article from CNN, reporting that the net value of millionaires has been declining (
). Likewise, this year (2012) the number of actual millionaires has declined in the USA (
). Worldwide the rich are getting richer. But not that many and even among the wealthy, some are losing.
For starters, then, I must keep in mind that not all that many people inhabit the category “wealthy.” Closer to home, I have to admit that the comfortable household income my wife and I now enjoy – though numerically far distant from the millionaire category – puts me materially much closer to “wealthy” than I’d ever like to admit. I therefore have absolutely no right somehow to make “the wealthy” culpable in a way that I am not. How do you spell s-c-a-p-e-g-o-a-t?
Now, anyone with a net worth of million dollars or more obviously has many more options than most people, so we don’t have to worry too much about them. Again, my point is not at all to justify getting rich. I’m trying to think about how my lumping people into a category – “the rich” – does no one any good. Hence, these articles loosen up my prejudice…a little.
Now, let’s move somewhat toward the other end of things. Consider this article from Time, “Do We Need $75,000 to be Happy?” (Meaning $75,00 for a yearly income.) (
). According to this story, $75,000 buys a degree of well being that we associate with happiness. Once a person gets to the $75,000 threshold, that feeling of financial stress dissipates and a sense of stability and well being ensues. It does not mean that people falling below this amount are sad. It just means that what we call “happiness” has a quantitative reference point.
That’s quite a gap – between a net worth of a million and making $75,000 a year. It turns out, piling up mountains of money does not add to one’s happiness.
So, in a way that I think we do not often consider, Jesus tells us much more about being wealthy in this parable than typically we notice. The non-wealthy should not resent the wealthy. And the wealthy should pay attention to what wealth might do to them.
I’m as close to being a bigot when it comes to the way I think about the wealthy as when I think about anything. And perhaps strangely, it is this very saying of Jesus that helps me to notice this my flaw.
Today, I worry about sounding downright ungenerous and small-souled. Even more, I worry because the topic I’m about to join cuts a little too close to the bone for me personally. I’m going to try to use parts of my life experience as a means of illustrating a problem in our church (United Methodist) that looms ever larger. Doing so touches a nerve.
Having attended two annual conferences, as well as following tweets, blogs and news pieces on General Conference, I have noticed how much we talk about people by reference to the categories they fit – or don’t. My category: a 57 year old, well-educated, white male, who enjoys a comfortable income. White, male, 50s, middle class. Privileged. Too many of my type still holding power.
Race, gender, age: these are the categories of reference most often put to use in our opinion-making about how things go in the church. (Notice how they come from social science and not from theology or the language of the church. But that thought will have to wait for another time.)
I have long understood the subtleties of race bias even when overt racism has curtailed some. I remember a former colleague – African-American woman, a professional in higher education with a Ph.D. from an Ivy League university – once telling me how she had been shadowed in the local iteration of a national discount store. She had been working in the yard and was in her grubbies and looking a little scruffy. African-American, a little dirty (it was a sweaty summer day) and voila, you just might be a shoplifter. So an employee, pretending to be a shopper, hangs around and watches you. When I think of her experience, I remember why we need to continue to pay attention to race.
Likewise with the category of age. I work with university students. I love talking to them, listening to them, hanging out with them, mentoring them, teaching them. I am an advocate for young people in the church. But I’m starting to worry and even, I admit, feel a little resentful. During these recent conference sessions near and far, I have heard both old and young make repeated reference to how we don’t listen to young people, it’s time to listen to young people, it’s time for some of us old folk to get out of the way and make room for young people. Older people are hogging the power and clogging the church’s vitality with worn-out, dull, irrelevant ideas and concerns.
I want to make clear, my problem is not with young people. In fact, I have made my own criticisms of how we treat young people in the church. The problem lies not with young people or old people. The problem lies in the way we think and talk – in categories! In the heat of trying to get things done and make things better, we United Methodists lapse into “category-think,” a version of “group-think.”
And so, by way of personal illustration, I want to show why I worry about over-using categories, why I don’t like categories so much. Here is what the categories don’t tell you about me.
I’m well-educated and live comfortably now, but I grew up poor. Not destitute poor, just always tight, going-without, worried-about-money poor. We always had plenty to eat, but partly that depended on good church folks “pounding” the preacher (my dad), or a local farmer butchering a steer or hog and sharing some meat with us. I also always had decent, clean clothes to wear, but from the bargain rack. We didn’t buy if it wasn’t on sale. No shame in that, but, as a kid, I lived with that constant feeling of financial tightness. And of not being able to do what others were doing. Of being different. I know how it feels to be different.
After chasing one job after another, my father finally said yes to a call to preach that he had felt for a long time. At age 50 and with only a high school diploma, he entered (then) Methodist pastoral ministry. His first year in this role (1962), he made $2,700. For the whole year. The church provided housing, of course, so $2,700 could stretch a little further, but not much. Median household income at that time approached $6,000. According to 1962 standards, we lived right at the poverty level.
I also grew up a transient. Back then, Dad would go off to annual conference in September (after the school year started) and we would not know till he came home whether we were moving or staying. I remember the announcement, “We’re moving,” and in a matter of a couple of weeks, we’d be packed up and gone to the new appointment. We moved 4 times in 4 years during the middle school phase of my childhood. The longest I ever lived in one place – before going off to college – was 3 years. I went to two high schools. I was always “the new kid” where new kids stood out. And I knew we’d be leaving soon.
Was my life as transient as some of the field workers picking cotton in Texas or vegetables on truck farms in Colorado? Of course not. But it was more like their life than you could ever imagine if you look at me only through the category I now fit. And that’s the problem with categories. Categories hide people.
I thus have two strong and offsetting opinions about the categories we use over-much in the United Methodist Church. I am very sympathetic to people who find themselves disadvantaged, on the margins. I have some sense of what it’s like to be in that condition. But on the other hand, I feel more resentment than I’d like to admit when people stick me in a category and make easy, breezy generalizations about me. And I’ve heard a few over the years. (I once was called a “pretty little white boy” by a seminary classmate.) They distort and hide as much as they reveal.
Some of the big troubles we are now facing in the United Methodist Church stem precisely from thinking too much in categories. They work well when we are generalizing and they are far too clumsy when we need to pay attention to on-the-ground circumstances. When we use them wrongly, we are like a surgeon wearing boxing gloves while trying to perform a delicate operation.
Categories tell us something we need to know, but, honestly, they don’t tell us much. Especially in the church, we should be very careful how we use them.
People who seek to become naturalized citizens of the United States must pass a test to qualify for the privilege of reciting the citizenship oath. And it’s an oral test (see
). No guessing on multiple choice questions.
Still worrying about the fallout from the 2012 United Methodist General Conference: what if potential delegates had to pass a test to qualify for election? Has someone already thought of this? One answer might be, “Yes, preparation for church membership and/or ordination should qualify a person.” Oh, would that it were so!
A quick narrative detour: years ago I was invited to collaborate with another pastor on a “What United Methodists Believe” class in our local congregation. We expected a handful of people and we agreed to go for 4 weeks. We had more than 50 people (a right good number for our community) and we extended the 4 weeks to 6 in order to accommodate people’s questions and interest. We had a lively time.
At the end of the study a dear sister in Christ approached me and said (I quote), “I’ve been a Methodist for more than 50 years and I didn’t know any of this stuff.”
She was a member in good standing. She could have been elected a delegate to GC. How many delegates go with lots of experience in the UM system but little to no awareness of our theological tradition? Shouldn’t we be at least somewhat unsettled by this state of affairs?
I can imagine two questions raised in protest:
1. Just what is “United Methodist” theology? Good question. Could we start with the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith and have people study “Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task?” (Book of Discipline)? And could we finally make somebody show us how to use the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral?”
But I digress…
2. Could we not just as well say that there are “United Methodist” theologies? Of course, but simply asserting the fact does not move us toward resolving any of the issues rending our ecclesial fabric.
If General Conference – as the only body that speaks officially for the entire denomination – is going to function properly, should we not demand that people who serve as delegates be at least minimally theologically qualified to do so? Notice how the pragmatic (a well-functioning General Conference) is affected by seemingly unrelated academic content. Notice the link between doing and thinking. Much thinking goes on before and at General Conference. But are enough people able to think with the the necessary theological tools in order to fulfill their obligations as delegates?
We don’t have to draw “theology” here too narrowly. Some people worry that when others – in other words, academics like me – start making references to theology, hair-splitting obfuscations follow that lead to more division rather than less. But honestly, could we be any more divided than we are short of actually dividing?
Maybe it’s time to try theology! I have to wonder if we could not avoid some of the problems bedeviling us if delegates had an adequate knowledge of the implications of their decisions relative to basic Christian and United Methodist beliefs.
So I entertain what likely seems to many United Methodists a ridiculous question: Shouldn’t we make our delegates pass a basic theology test in order to qualify? If you think it preposterous, I refer you back to the narrative detour.
I’m not a fan of punditry, even of the ecclesial kind, but I guess I’ll set aside scruples and weigh in on the United Methodist General Conference as it presses toward the finish. One question once again stands out: just how badly divided are we? I think, pretty badly.
A Facebook friend posted the proposed Disciplinary amendment by Adam Hamilton and Michael Slaughter on our deep differences over homosexuality. It was thoughtful, irenic, well-worded. It holds to the church’s traditional stance on the matter. I agree with its sentiment and I wish it had passed.
But I also read the reason for voting it down, that we don’t acknowledge our divisions on other issues, so we shouldn’t on this one. That’s true. We don’t. But what if we did? What would we actually have to face about our beloved denomination, if sprinkled all through our Book of Discipline we actually saw the numbers that represent our divided mind?
Let’s try a little thought experiment. What if every General Conference vote that changes the wording of the Book of Discipline also had to include (in the BofD) the split? You know, 55% yea and 45% nay, etc.? In other words, what if we actually had to see, in our Book of Discipline, how often and on which issues we get close to splitting 50-50?
What if we voted on doctrinal standards? What if we went down each statement in the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith and asked delegates to say “yea” or “nay?” Now, before we get trapped in cautions about metaphorical readings, etc., let’s keep in mind that those doctrinal statements are meant to be taken as actual propositions. (I know that we cannot dispense with metaphor, nor do I want to. Let’s just try the thought experiment.)
How about Article 2, which reads in part, “Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s [sic] nature…” Yea? Nay?
Some of us might want to update the language of this claim, but, again, let’s focus on the main question: do we believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus? What would a vote of General Conference delegates reveal? And why does it matter?
My point here is not to go on a doctrinal witch hunt. My point is to imagine just how divided we actually are.
Years ago – and I mean, like 20 – in the midst of the same controversy roiling us now, about ten of us UM clergy got together – all members of the same annual conference (remember the covenant?) to see if we could find any doctrinal statements that we could all agree on. We intentionally made the group diverse. After a couple of hours debate, we found near complete disagreement except on one slim point. We could all say yes to the belief that something happened on the first Easter morning. But we could not affirm as a group the proposition found in Article 2. To be sure, some of us in the group did affirm it. But some didn’t. In other words, we were not “of the same mind.”
We could not find agreement on any other topic we discussed.
I believe this sort of disagreement has very practical implications. Our theological convictions show us what we care about. If we don’t care about at least some of the same things, we have no core, doctrinally or missionally, that holds us together.
I think this is what General Conference teaches us every four years.
This is the week at General Conference when things start to get really hot, as the controversial votes come to the floor of plenary session. The topic of homosexuality will grab the headlines again and, though I understand why, I wish we were talking about other sexual matters, too.
Anyone working with young adults in the church (and in higher education) should take the time to read Mark Regnerus’ and Jeremy Uecker’s book, Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate and Think about Marrying, (Oxford U Press, 2011). The book focuses virtually entirely on heterosexual activity, offering only one page (in the introductory chapter) of reference to same-sex coupling. And this is exactly why I think church leaders should read the book. While same sex activity gets all the attention, really serious problems regarding “straight” sex go virtually unnoticed. Have we bought into culture’s fatalistic norms about sex? Yes.
I won’t take the time to do a full review of the book, but let me make a couple of observations. First, our stereotype of the “hookup culture” needs modification. Most young people having sex are doing so within exclusive relationships. Of course, as the authors show, people do hook up and there is plenty of casual sex going on (more among young people not in college than in college – one of the possible surprises that doesn’t fit the stereotype about college). But, as the book shows, people in romantic relationships have much more sex than people not in a relationship.
The problem is that the relationships don’t last. Hence, the phenomenon known as “serial monogamy.” (Gosh, where did they learn this one?) Emerging adults are postponing marriage precisely because they value it. But they don’t connect sex to marriage any more. So, they get into a romantic relationship and most start having sex early. (Ironically, sexually active young people find it far more easy to engage in sexual intimacy than to have an intimate, non-sexual conversation.) Since most of them are not ready to settle down and commit to one another for life, they fatalistically assume that the relationship will end. There is a psychological, spiritual cost to this practice!
The most important and sobering generalization of Premarital Sex in America shines light on the moral norming that takes place among emerging adults. Although the book makes reference to moral norms, it often describes these norms in terms of “scripts” that young people believe and live.
Precisely here is why the church should start paying more attention. We use words like “peer pressure” and we don’t notice the moral character of peer pressure. We simply do not recognize that college students form moral communities. They learn from each other, often through social networking media, television and the movies. (When was the last time you saw a TV show or movie involving romance that did not have the main characters having sex practically almost to start the relationship?) They learn from these sources and not from their church communities what is expected in romantic relationships. Therefore, their choices are not as free as they think and have been told. They are being shaped by a moral community.
The last chapter of the book summarizes 10 myths about sex. I can’t resist quoting some of them. The first one is “Long-term exclusivity is a fiction.” (Really?) Second, “the introduction of sex is necessary in order to sustain a struggling or fledgling relationship.” Fifth, “It doesn’t matter what other people do sexually; you make your own choices.” Eighth, “Sex need not mean anything.” (Wow, this is a doozy. The book acknowledges that some people seem able to engage in “free love” without any serious side effects, but most people suffer. This is one of the dirty little secrets about the myth of no-cost sexual expression in America.) Finally, “Moving in together is definitely a step toward marriage.” No, it isn’t. This is not the authors’ opinion. It is empirical. People who move in together before they get married do not usually go ahead and get married.
There are bright spots in the book. One of them is that students really value marriage, hold it in high esteem and dream of entering this estate. Someday. The problem is, by the time they get there, most of them will have a sexual history that will include significant amounts of pain and regret.
We’ve been told again and again by a thousand different means that it’s none of our business; that it’s none of the church’s business. How dare we try to impose our Christian morality on the young? But someone’s morality is being imposed. And it is not good. Just open your eyes and look around.
I know General Conference must address the issues that people present to it. I know that various questions related to homosexuality will get the lion’s share of attention this week. I also know that we are entirely failing our young with regard to the kind of sex that most of them are having. I’m not trying to set up a false dichotomy. I’m just begging for us to pay more attention.
I don’t actually know what this Roman god “felt like,” obviously, but feeling like Janus seems appropriate right now. If you’ve seen pictures of this deity, you see two faces. Janus was worshipped as the deity who oversees the transition of time – looking to the past and looking to the future. But Janus also takes a rap for being two-faced, looking both directions at the same time. Or something like that.
Here’s my version of Janus-like feeling.
1. I’m very interested in the proceedings at General Conference (United Methodist) 2012 and wish I could be there. Big issues coming and big decisions will be made that potentially will affect the church’s structure (thus, in some ways, its mission) for years to come. I pray for delegates, wishing them all the best. It’s a grueling, exciting, frustrating, mysteriously exhilarating time. The worship is inspiring. It’s wonderful to see friends and acquaintances across the connection. And there are even moments of grace and peace when adversaries manage to treat each other like Jesus teaches us.
2. I feel simultaneously disconnected. Jaded maybe. While talking about Christian conferencing, there will be virtually no serious, sustained, engaged, theological dialogue. The truth is, United Methodists as a lot don’t do theology very well. And it matters.
Case in point: the biggest elephant in the room at GC 2012 is the Call to Action proposal and the various alternative proposals. It has to do with the potentially massive structural changes coming for a denomination that recognizes it is bureaucratically bloated. I agree that something needs to be done.
But I read the Towers Watson Report (a significant source for the CTA proposal). Two things stood out to me among all the graphs, charts and statistical summaries.
1. Permitting clergy to self-describe as “liberal” or “conservative,” the report concluded that theology doesn’t matter much with reference to the marks of vitality for a local congregation. The irony hit me like a truck. The one thing that distinguishes the church from other agencies involved in working for the common good is theology. Not the exceedingly nuanced academic abstractions that people love to hate when they use the word “theology” almost like a swear word. But lived, thoughtful, reflective theology. And the Towers Watson report suggests that theology really doesn’t matter to us. We all love Jesus, so let’s just go do something!
2. Thus, in the pressure and stress to get something done before the clock runs out on GC 2012, there will be appeals to emotion, impassioned references to our denomination’s mission statement (it will be used to support all kinds of conflicting efforts), and even a few assorted threats. The Consent Calendar probably will be used to good and ill effect. There will likely be passing references to the Wesleys, especially Father John. He will be invoked (“social holiness” or “catholic spirit” or something close).
In short, too often General Conference is an exercise in unproductive and inefficient pragmatism.
I love The United Methodist Church. I am a cradle Methodist and, after my little period of young adult disenchantment in college, I became a United Methodist by informed conviction. I feel almost disloyal being so critical about what is likely to happen in Tampa. But if the Towers Watson Report adequately reflects clergy attitudes, then, truly, we do not know what we are doing.