There is a great deal of discussion these days about what makes United Methodists “Methodist.” What I find more challenging is what makes us “United” Methodists. The fractures to our connection are deeply painful to me. There is no real freedom to disagree in love. People talk about one another rather than to one another. Dialogue devolves into interminable and senseless debate. Winning arguments and scoring points takes precedence over reconciliation and seeking creative solutions. Being right is more important than being Christ-like.
I have been reading a marvelous book — Patricia Sullivan’s loving history of the NAACP and the roots of the Civil Rights movement, Lift Every Voice. First, let me say that this is an incredibly painful book to read. It is an embarrassing and shameful story of the mistreatment, cruelty, hatefulness, and violence perpetrated against others based on their skin color. However, it is also an incredible story of the men and women who crusaded for change — pioneers and prophets who stood up to the powers and principalities of their age, overcoming incredible odds to topple the structures of evil oppression, hatred, bigotry and ignorance. It points out as well, that there is still a long way to go. Perhaps the saddest thing about the book is that it tells an all-too-familiar story. There are striking parallels between the Civil Rights struggles of black Americans and those of other immigrant groups, women, and homosexuals. In every place and in every age, the dominant culture-in-power selects a new minority to persecute, attack and despise. And in each and every case, the Christian church in America is front and center in the oppression and violence. What’s up with that?
Much of the Pauline corpus of scripture is dedicated to the concept of unity. Dividing walls of hostility broken down. Differences between slave and free, male and female, Jew and Greek — all made irrelevant by the cross of Christ. The surest sign of the body of Christ is oneness — of mind, heart, spirit, and resolve — proclaiming our faith with one accord. Our focus isn’t on differences — or even diversity — but on unity through complementarity. We are unique as members of the body, but it is one body — the body of Christ.
Reading some of the spurious logic and arguments used to “keep the black people in their place” in Lift Every Voice, triggered a few thoughts in my own mind.
- opponents to love, grace, acceptance, and unity abandon their Christian scriptures in favor of an Old Testament vengeful, retributive, punitive, angry God theology. Preachers who generally ignore the Hebrew scriptures because they have been superseded by the “new” gospel have no problem dusting it off as a weapon for heated debate
- both sides of every divisive issue get sidetracked by a modernist morality that has nothing to do with the original issues. The practical aspects of a primitive, pre-modern social contract are transformed into a moralizing morass of modernistic revision. What scriptures actually meant is rejected in favor of what we want them to mean in order to win the fight.
- there are two basic kinds of ignorance — lack of knowledge and honest-to-goodness stupidity. Where you encounter a lack of knowledge, you can address an issue in a rational, reasonable way. Deep-seated, box of rocks, bone-deep-stupidity is the fertile soil of bigotry and prejudice. It is highly resistant to change (sometimes impervious). It is startling to realize that in both the women’s rights and Civil Rights movements (and we may assume in the human sexuality division) one of the key components of change was the dying off of older generations steeped in a particular prejudice. Much of stupidity has to be outgrown and outlasted.
- insidious objectification is a sign of immaturity (spiritual, and otherwise) — the inability to talk to one another in a kind, decent respectful way must be overcome for unity to exist. We can’t talk abouteach other. We can’t dismiss one another with generic labels — “women,” “blacks,” Latinos,” “gays,” etc. We can’t pull end runs — trying to get people we dislike or disagree with in trouble by ratting them out to people in power. The dehumanisation of “the other” is the adult equivalent of childish behavior (name calling, tattling, bullying, ostracizing those who are a little different).
- ordering the world into safe spheres of “us” versus “them” offers no lasting benefits. If there is a lasting core of the Christian and Pauline teaching for our day it is simply this: there is no “them.” We are all God’s children. We have been left with one “weapon” with which to conduct our business: love. Loving people into submission is the path of Christian discipleship. Extending God’s grace to a broken and struggling world filled with human beings just like us is why we are here. Our baptism is an initiation into a life of God’s mercy and justice for all of creation.
I could go on and on (…yes, I know. I DO go on and on…) but these are just a few of the thoughts that plague me as I am trying to get through Lift Every Voice. And what does it mean for our church? What kind of leadership does our denomination need to heal our woundedness and put the unity back in United Methodism? What occurs to me is:
- we need to get our priorities straight and stop worrying so much about preserving our own institution — if we become a witness of oneness as the body of Christ we’ll do just fine
- we need to quit focusing so much on our differences and find the common values and vision that pull us together instead of driving us apart
- we need to quit labeling and getting sucked into tangential debates; let’s start by focusing on the “label” Christian and see where that takes us
- we need to shift focus on what we have been saved from, and focus instead on what we have been saved for — we bicker about whose “sins” are worse while the world is dying
- we need to learn to say:
- “I’m sorry.”
- “I was wrong.”
- “I don’t know everything.”
- “I respect you, even though I disagree with you.”
- we need to differentiate better between “truth” and “opinion” — just because someone believes something doesn’t make it true; just because someone believes something different that you do doesn’t make them wrong
- we need to move from “right/wrong” thinking to “everyone is right to some degree” thinking — no one stands up and defends what they believe to be false, wrong, hateful, or stupid. Understanding what someone believes is only half the battle — understanding why people believe what they do is essential for harmony
- we need to learn to look for the face of Christ and the image of God in everyone we meet, especially those with whom we disagree.
What if…? We are currently calling “United” Methodists to “Rethink” who we are, what we do, why we’re here, and the witness we are making to the world. What if… the world saw in us true unity, true grace, true justice and mercy? What if we offered just a glimpse of what heaven might be like? Through unity, harmony, and oneness of spirit, wouldn’t it be glorious if when people saw United Methodists they saw the true, incarnate body of Christ present in the world?