Not Our Issue

I am attending the North Central Jurisdiction CORR (Commission on Religion and Race) learning event this weekend in Milwaukee.  As I gather in this place with these people I notice three things about myself.  First, I can breathe.  I don’t feel at all constrained or worried about what others might think.  The people assembled here are deeply committed Christians from every walk of life (though, just by being here, we are among the more privileged in our society) and from a wide variety of racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.  This feels like home — or more appropriately, like true community in Christ — where all are welcome and all are honored.  Second, I feel hope.  There are more younger people here than at most church gatherings, and the spirit and energy is positive.  This is a glimpse of what our church is at its very best.  Third, I feel honest.  No one here is pretending that we don’t have racial, gender, age, sexuality, and faith prejudice issues.  This is one of the few groups that isn’t drowning in denial.  And yet, this gathering also shines revealing and embarrassing light on how far our larger church is from the kingdom of God.  It is one thing to note who is here.  It is another to note who is not.

When I attended the Strengthening the Black Church conference earlier this year I received the same nonplussed response I got when I told people I would be attending the Religion and Race conference: “why are you going?  You’re white.”  My response: “what has that got to do with anything?”  Their response: “but race isn’t our issue.”  Whose issue is it?  The common perception to this day is that, while we claim to be a diverse and multicultural church, many well-meaning (but terribly misguided) people think that African-Americans should go to Black Church events, and that Hispanic and Latino people should go to Hispanic and Latino events, and that Asian people should go to Asian events, and Native/American Indians should attend Native/American Indian events, and that young people should go to young people’s events and that only women should attend United Methodist Women Schools of Christian Mission, and on and on.  Beyond that:

  • poor and marginalized? (not our issue)
  • homeless? (not our issue)
  • hungry? (not our issue)
  • gang violence? (not our issue)
  • natural disasters? (we respond a few weeks, then — not our issue)
  • AIDS? (not our issue)
  • drug abuse? (not our issue)
  • domestic abuse? (not our issue)
  • malaria? (we’ll buy a net)
  • education? (not out issue)
  • social justice? (not our — or Glenn Beck’s — issue)
  • Islamaphobia? (not our issue)
  • ecumenism? (not our issue)
  • global warming/environmental concerns? (not our issue)
  • sexual misconduct? (not our issue — but tell us about it anyway)

Etc., etc., etc., ad infinitum.  There is so much NOI (not our issue) in our church today that we really have no right to call ourselves “united” Methodists.  We don’t take responsibility for one another.  We have no true vision of unity.  We are barely tolerant of others, let alone accepting or embracing.  I have been told that events such as this one are irrelevant and wasteful because we have conquered racism in The United Methodist Church.  This is apparently news to everyone but upper middle- and middle-class white people, but has become the great urban legend of our denomination.  We are a far, far cry from an “open-minded, open-hearted, open-doored” inclusiveness and acceptance.  We practice a selective tokenism and preen with pride, but there are a whole lot more walls, fences and barriers than bridges, gateways, and portals in our racially and ethnically diverse UMC.

So what are we doing about it?  Small gatherings of deeply committed men and women come together to celebrate who we are and who we could be, and we strategize ways to get the word out.  We share our passions and hopes, and we are amazed and impressed by the quality of leadership and intelligence of the people who assemble.  And all the time we hold in the back of our minds the multitudes of our brothers and sisters who sit at home, content because this is “not our issue.”

When one suffers, we all suffer.  Until these issues become “our” issues, we are in sad shape.  Now, I am not saying that every individual has to be involved in every issue, but to deny that any issue that is important to God is not our issue is problematic.  The eye can not say to the ear (the privileged white cannot say to the ethnic minority…) we have no use of you.  We are not a single body with many parts, but an amalgam of dismembered body parts unrelated and disconnected and not much interested in the health and well-being of any other part.  We are much too focused on “our own issues” — dividing ourselves into enclaves of “us” disconnected from “them.”  We look at fifty ministries of the General Board of Global Ministries and don’t like two, so we yowl that we shouldn’t have to support them with our apportionments.  We celebrate 175 ministries in our own annual conference, but disagree with one decision made by “them” and threaten to withhold our support until we get our way.  We protect our turf and fight for our own territory, seeing other ministries as competition rather than collaborative efforts aimed at fulfilling a larger objective.  We define ourselves in very narrow ways, disinterested in anything that is not our issue.

Heaven help us.  Until we realize that we stand or fall together, we will never break the inertia that currently defines us.  No campaign, no marketing ploy, no branding effort, no call to action is going to make any difference — it won’t change the world — until we conspire to change ourselves.  This is OUR issue — to find a meaningful way to put “united” on the front burner of United Methodism.

14 replies

  1. Ouch! But you are right on target. A vast majority of United Methodists seem to avert their eyes from the ugly, dirty aspects of society. We try to pretend everything is wonderful and we all love one another. Couldn’t be further from the truth. Are we any different from the Pharisees of Jesus’ time? They turned a blind eye to the lepers, the poor, the hungry, homeless widows and orphans – people to whom Jesus ministered.

  2. I know a couple who left the UMC because of one issue. In some ways, I thought it was great for them to follow their convictions. In another way, I felt bad that that one negative outweighed all the positives to them. Also, I thought how boring for them to start going to a small home church where everyone agreed. At least for a little while and once you’ve left a church once I’d say it becomes easier to leave another…and another instead of coming to a place of agreeing to disagree.

    Change will have to come from each individual to affect the whole.

  3. Ouch Indeed …. but so so true.
    Denial -/- at/in it’s worst manifestation.
    So — the $64K question — what are we going to do about it — and perhaps more importantly — HOW ?

  4. I’m beyond fed up with the whole thing. As an Elder, I’ve been at this just long enough to realize that I won’t change narrow minded people who would prefer to be wrong than to talk about ministry, justice, helping out people in need, etc.

    So, partially from the inspiration of an earlier post, I’ve decided to spend as much time as possible in the above areas that you cite. I will devote my time to being an advocate for abused, neglected and abandoned children. I’ll hang around the people who others don’t care about. I’ll give all that I can to people in need. I will have actual relationships with people that everyone else has written off. I’ll go on as many mission trips as possible and provide help in any way that I can. And occasionally, I’ll attend conferences like the one you attended to get much needed nourishment.

    But I will not waste any more time trying to convince people who say “no” to these issues to say “yes” instead. If they’re not interested, it’s their loss in so many ways. And I’ll let them know what they’re missing out on. But I will not allow their “not my issue” attitude to affect me. If that means I take a bunch of criticism for it as a church leader, I really don’t care. I mean, what can anyone do? My future is bright, and I want to share it with people who need some hope. I was given some hope, and God reminds me constantly that this gift is to share and not to hoard.

    So…I’ll put myself out there and challenge everyone. I propose that in future responses to this article that we start posting actual things that we’re doing in response to the issues that Dan raises. What are we doing about it? How are we going out into the world? How is God using us to make a difference? Let’s post it as a prophetic voice against all the people who are more motivated by sitting on the sidelines than on the content of the Message!

    • It’s an individual thing. Within a large, complex denomination.
      I’ve been planning on my move to another region of Texas, a very different culture that I grew up in. Coming from a downtown UMC, my plans were first to go to the largest UMC in the new hometown, which is in its most affluent area. But, individually, I have matured in faith and am aware of what personal gifts I can share with others. To better use my faith, I may now go to a smaller, lower budget UMC that is in more need of ministry and fellowship.
      Thanks for this fine article, and Mr. Whitman, for your inspiration.

    • I’m trying to move to Canada. That is what I am doing. I think I’ll be closer to God and the Kingdom in a more secular country, ironically.

  5. As an outsider to the UMC but theologically a Wesleyan I tend to see things differently than you. One reason I could not be a part of the UMC is that the issues you listed seem, to me, to be all you are interested in and you ignore the purpose to which God called the church.

    Let me see if I can explain before you put me in the good old “narrow minded” pigeon-hole.

    I would agree that the issues you listed are important. They are issues that individual Christians should be involved in personally and with passion. As an example your first item. We are to be concerned for the poor. Jesus was concerned for the poor but we use the methods of sociology and psychology to help them rather than the methods of the Bible. I can not find one instance where Jesus gave money to the poor. If He could send a disciple to get a piece of gold out of the mouth of a fish, walk on water, raise the dead, heal the sick, and conquer death you would think He could have at least set up a foundation to subsidize mortgages. Instead it repeatedly says He preached the Gospel to the poor.

    The church has often worked with the poor and done a wonderful job because as they did the work they realized that if you feed a man but don’t save his soul then Hell will be full of well fed non-believers.

    So keep up the concern, but don’t forget what Jesus actually came for.

    Grace and peace.

    • I simply can’t make it an “either/or” issue, and I have never been able to separate action from values. Where the treasure is, the heart is also. Jesus could not have fed the multitudes without feeding the poor — a statistical impossibility. Matthew 25 offers a different perspective, and I do not believe that Jesus was a “do as I say, not as I do” preacher. Jesus tended to treat people as people, not as categories. We live with a church that is often so heavenly minded, it is of no earthly good. NOT what Jesus came for.

  6. You are a wonderful person. At every turn in my spiritual life, as I wrestle with issues that seem beyond me, I have been able to open your blog and find guidance. Today was another one of those days. My small Texas UM church is about to make an appointment of a worship leader that is going to be controversial. I fear that this issue will be a divider, and with a congregation of 100 regular attendees, division is a little scary. I prayed that God would help us by taking this potential divider away…that he not accept the position. I did not want this to be my issue…I am a grown adult male over 40 from the great state of Texas sitting on my back porch crying. God’s word through your blog…not the answer I wanted but the answer that I knew in my heart was right. Thank you for being His servant.

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