Way back in the last century — 1988 to be exact — I prepared a sermon for the 250th anniversary of John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience. When I arrived on Sunday morning and looked at the bulletin, I realized that my title had a typo — instead of “Heart Strangely Warmed” the published title was “Heart Strangely Harmed.” It made such an impression at the time that I winged it and preached a sermon from the heart, asking people to consider the ways we use faith to do harm instead of good, and that as long as each individual does only what works for them, we will never actually be “the church” — that ultimately we can only be God’s people together. The concept of a heart strangely harmed stuck with me, and I experienced it once again all over again as I sat through the second day of the Amy De Long trial. I am not going to comment on the trial itself — that story belongs to others more and better able to tell it than I — but on the state of a church that cannot conceive of a better path toward wholeness than accommodating and assimilating a secular court of law.
The very first consideration is the foundation upon which we operate. Judaism was a faith of Law, and while Christ did not come to abolish the Law, he did come to reframe law in service to justice. Grace displaced condemnation; forgiveness displaced punishment, mercy displaced violence; and, accountability displaced brute enforcement. The one constant in the two spheres was community. Morality in the pre-modern world had a very simple test: if the act of the individual supported the good of the community, the act was moral; if the act in any way hurt or undermined the community, the act was immoral. There was none of the quivering Victorian daintiness over individual acts, but the contributions — positive and negative — each made to the common good. Through the grace of Jesus Christ and the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, believers came to know a God of love rather than judgement. Through Christ, the work of the church became that of reconciliation, erasing the dividing walls of hostility between “us” and the wide plethora of “them.” Wesley got that in his later life; many Methodists have not.
When it comes to disagreements, United Methodists preferring walking by sight rather than faith. One of the worst things that ever happened to Methodism was Robert’s Rules of Order. Once we adopted a trial system, and decades later RRoO, we made clear that when we disagree we would rather be Old Testament legalists rather than New Covenant Christians. Law is now, and has always been, easier than justice. RRoO are cleaner and easier (though, not simpler) than concensus-building. Rules are more definitive than policies which are more definitive than guidelines which are more definitive than working out our own salvation with fear and trembling. We always prefer the path of least resistance, and so it is much easier to adopt secular practices than to do the hard work of Christian living. It is so much easier to dissect the Bible and interpret the Book of Discipline than to discern the will of God together. This is the current crisis of United Methodism: we are a people of the Book, but that book is not the Bible. Who needs discernment when you have a Discipline?
A trial provides a forum where declarative statements of opinion can be entered in as fact, and evidence is used to determine Truth. Gross hyperbole abounds as individuals make claims for “the Church,” as though the church is a single, uniform entity of one mind and conviction. Shades of gray are battered into simple black and white. Any system that adopts trials as a primary form of dispute and disagreement settlement establishes certain constraints:
- we will be adversarial
- there will be winners and losers
- we will nit-pick technicalities and inconsistencies
- we will explore each nuance and ascribe intention
- we will use language as a weapon to trap, to trick, and to test
- we lack the intelligence and creativity to come up with a better way to do this
- we lack the spirituality and connection to Christ, so we settle for secular solutions and processes
I have only been to two trials. At least in the first one we paused once an hour for silent prayer and time to ask God’s guidance in what we were doing. That was absent from the more recent trial, though we did open with prayer… and scripture was used to score points for one side or the other. But let me be clear: I am not criticizing the individuals involved. My concern is with a spiritual communion that chooses this as an appropriate system for Christians. When the system is designed to divide rather than reconcile, it raises the question of its purpose. It is a system that demands winners and losers. It pretends that whatever result will be “right, good, and true,” when in fact the best we can say in many cases is that we followed all the rules to the letter. A system of trials produces a very clear outcome — each time it is employed, it further divides and damages the body. And if this isn’t what we want, why are we holding onto a 19th century practice that didn’t work well then either?
There is a bit of wisdom I have always been too stupid to employ: the longer you talk, the dumber you sound. It has corollaries in such statements as “doing the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity,” and the old,
“the more you study, the more you learn;
the more you learn, the more you know;
the more you know, the more you can forget;
the more you can forget, the more you do forget;
the more you do forget, the less you know;
the less you know, the dumber you are;
so, why study?”
A system can only produce what it is designed for. If a system is producing the wrong thing, don’t waste time tinkering with the wrong system. Change to something different — completely different. We use a system designed to win at great cost. That may be fine for a competitive, cynical, corrupt and caustic world, but it is irreconcilable with a church whose General Rules begin, “First, do no harm…”