United! In What Ways?

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.

51gldDSQsFL__SL500_AA240_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.

  1. 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
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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?

10 replies

  1. Dan,

    Great post. But while I’m all for claiming our unity as “United” Methodists, I get a little uncomfortable with the idea that United Methodists are simply Methodists who are united. The United Methodist Church is the result of the union of The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church. And while the “United” in our name speaks to the joining of these two denominations and to the denominational unity we aspire to, it also recognizes the EUB (and, before that, the Evangelical and United Brethren) part of our heritage. I know that the purpose of this blog is to think critically about who we are as United Methodists today (and not to dig into the past), but there’s a lot of history and tradition and work done for the advancement of the gospel wrapped up in the “United” half of our name—history and tradition that is largely forgotten, even in former EUB congregations.

    Sorry for the diversion. Again, this is an excellent post.

  2. Having read the article in the Dallas Examiner and talking to some people, there is a sense that you are causing problems. I don’t feel that way, but I wonder how much trouble you are in for “speaking the truth in love” about the current situaltion in the UMC, specifically about ReThink Church? I don’t understand why you are viewed as “a trouble-maker,” but that is what I have heard about you. Are you receiving grief because you are saying what a lot of us are thinking?

    • Absolutely not! One of the great things about our denomination is the free and open exchange of ideas. I have not personally any negative emails or responses to my opinions and the research I have done on Igniting Ministries/ReThink Church — except for any comments left on the blog. In fact, 90 percent of the responses are very positive, including feedback from Bishops, DSs, DCMs, General Secretaries of Boards and Agencies, pastors and lay people. All of the energy and attention is on making our church stronger. Sure, a few people are unhappy, but they are a very small minority. Disagreement and discussion are the bread and butter of a healthy church. I have yet to hear directly from anyone bothered by the open, honest, and heartfelt concerns about our denominational marketing campaigns. Worry not. We haven’t gotten to a place where sharing honest opinions is a matter for censure or censor.

  3. I appreciate your sharing about this book that many of us probably would not have considered reading, especially because it reminds us a painful and historical truth about our culture and ourselves. I learned about my “whiteness” by reading “Lifting the White Veil — An Exploration of White American Culture in a Multiracial Context,” by Jeff Hitchcock, 2002. If I had not be required to read in in a seminary intercultural studies class, I would not have selected the book. It continues to have an impact on how I think about race and being privileged in our culture as a white male. The book was not a guilt trip, either, but an awakening. Kudos to the white male author, to his Afrian American wife, and to their marriage.

    I am not clergy, but I might be one day. I admire those who strive to be gracious first and last, even when they disagree with the other. This behavior is a possible norm for the UMC. Choosing to not shove idealogy from the top down, as the Episcopol Church did on the issue of homosexuality, models gracious behavior and will be seen as a wise choice. The issue of homosexuality in the church will not go away, and awareness will build. But this book is about race, so let’s not let the current issue overshadow, or highjack, the issue of race and culture in the church. Our church has about 10% nonwhite people. Why? I studied models of purposeful intercultural churches, and it is a very different model than the typical more culturally homogeneous church. I won’t go into it further here, but I am glad you brought this book forward for us to consider.

    Also, I see the behavior described in point number 2 as a stumbling block to compassion which is practiced by both sides — right or left.


  4. In my experience, your first paragraph’s observations about our denomination are almost completely generational. I am 38, and have many colleagues my age and younger with whom I strongly disagree about a number of issues, yet we manage to do so with respect and grace.

    • Andy,

      Celebrate what you have. It is unique and a true gift. I look with dismay at a growing group of younger leaders who are following the dysfunctional example of those who have gone before. And also understand, the majority of people stirring things up and refusing to play nice is a significant minority of the whole population, regardless of age. It only takes a few to poison the well, sometimes.

  5. I could figure out what your were referencing in each of your five points except for No. 2. Could you explain that one with a hypothetical of specifical example?

    As always, appreciate the passion. I think you are going to take some lumps for calling people stupid. Doing so runs counter to the spirit of most of the rest of your post.

    I appreciate your point about fighting with each other as the world burns. That burning, of course, is the outworking of sin. But I take your point and agree with it.

    • Let me pick a safer example: divorce. Ethnic purity, populating the earth, not placing the burden of single women with children on the community, and not threatening the security of minority communities were key practical drivers in ancient Hebrew society. Divorce was a practical threat and therefore a sin. The “immorality” of divorce is a fairly modern conceit. Even Jesus’ response to the religious authorities was about the breaking of covenant and the tearing of the fabric of community rather than the morality of divorce. We do such recontextualization of scripture through modern lenses, and through the filters of faith applied by our Puritan and Victorian forebears. Much of what was deemed “wrong” in the Old Testament was not intrinsically immoral; it was immoral because it damaged the community and undermined the strength and integrity of the people of God.

    • Oh, and the stupid thing? I was going to use hebetudinous, but decided not to. I will take heat, and perhaps rightfully so, but I cannot quite find another word that conveys my deepest feelings about bigotry, prejudice, racism, sexism, and hatefulness. I guess in my mind these things are the most negative form of ignorance I know.

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