I’ve kept a file since my first General Conference in 1988 of the letters, phone calls, conversations and emails detailing the “concerns” individuals and congregations raised in preparation of the quadrennial meeting. This file is a reminder of the diversity of opinion in our denomination, the level of fear and disrespect still rampant in our churches and conferences, the heartfelt passion people bring to various issues, and just how far we still are from the kingdom/kin-dom/realm of the Almighty. I will make this statement at the outset — knowing it will do little good — to frame my comments. I do not think we should frame our disagreements in battle terms: win/lose, right/wrong, us/them. We are human beings and we will have very strong opinions and beliefs which will be in conflict from time to time. This is healthy and good. It is when we resort to hateful rhetoric, angry contempt, petty bigotry and spiteful attack dressed up in self-righteousness and fake Christian piety that I feel we have a serious problem. Is the majority of it lodged in simple ignorance? Certainly, but it goes beyond that.
The following examples may illustrate:
From 1988 (Northern New Jersey)
If any of our Christian money goes to support people with AIDS my family will leave the church. They get what they deserve.
Why do we have to support minorities? Why can’t they have their own churches? They think and talk differently than we do, and I am afraid they are taking over… We should never have let our (italics mine) slaves go to church.
Why are we even talking about gays? The Bible says ‘NO’
I don’t know if General Conference is the right place to bring this up, but are we ever going to ask the question, “Should women be allowed to be ministers. The Bible says they should not be allowed to speak up in church.
Please, please, please protect us from the Religious Right. Have you seen their agenda? We must not let the lunatics run the asylum. These people must be stopped now!
From 1996 (Nashville, Tennessee and from all across America — I was working for the General Board of Discipleship at the time)
God hates fags. If Methodists love God, they will hate fags, too.
I don’t know how a Democrat can claim to be a Christian. They want to kill babies, give condoms to children, protect serial killers, promote homosexuality, kill big business, and raise our taxes. In what universe are any of these things Christian?
We have to stop the liberal agenda to destroy the church and undermine God’s kingdom. We may quickly be coming to a time where violence is our only alternative. When people don’t listen, Christians need to act.
What will it take to make Church and Society go away? It would be nice if we could do it with legislative action at General Conference, but it may only be possible with explosives.
From 2004 (Nashville, and points global — still at GBOD )
Perhaps it is time for the Methodist church to wake up to the fact that we live in Bush’s America. We don’t tolerate sin, we don’t coddle terrorists, we don’t take crap from anybody, and we aren’t bleeding heart Socialists. The time has come for our church to take a stand and BE CHRISTIAN!
You need to understand that if the church votes to tolerate gays it will split the church. I guarantee you, the 99% of us who love the Lord will be out the door if you let the other 1% have their way.
I love God, I love my church and I would do anything for Jesus. I believe sinners go to hell, and I do not want them running the church. This is why I oppose homosexuals in church.
No to abortion! No to queers! Yes to the death penalty! No to science that plays God. You have been warned!
And, now again, in 2012 it starts all over. I am not going to quote the current batch, because they are no different from any of those above. I count 127 different messages all of a similar stripe; all couched in terms of loving Christians speaking their heart before General Conference. I assume most of these people to be normal, well-meaning, sincere individuals who are motivated by what they believe to be solid, accurate, valid and moral worldviews. To me, this is our greatest challenge. We speak of diversity in terms of face, gender, age, education and economics, but we do not fully engage the concept of our theological and ecclesial diversity. This is the diversity that may actually destroy us, because we are not working to foster structures and processes that allow us to disagree well in true fellowship and Christian love.
I have said before that my default position is this: everyone is right… to some degree. The corollaries to this are:
- no one is 100% right 100% or the time
- no one defends a position that they know or believe to be false
- being misguided, ignorant, biased, stubborn, recalcitrant and opinionated = being human
- together we are better off than divided
- focusing on what we hold in common offers more possibilities than focusing on our differences
- we all benefit when we put the good of the community ahead of individual agendas
If our God is a God of love whose primary desire is reconciliation and restoration, who sent a Savior as a bridge to extend the offer of grace to humankind, and who continues to empower and inspire through the Holy Spirit to destroy the dividing walls and bring us to unity in one body, then who are we to work so hard to thwart this will? I mean, let’s get over ourselves. The vision God delivers to God’s people is to become Christ’s own body in the world. All of our energy, efforts, engagement and enthusiasm should be to create, to heal, to connect, to build rapport, and to become one in Christ. If sin, brokenness, bad-behavior, ill-will, judgmentalism, disrespect and open hostility exempt us from the kingdom, we are in deep doo-doo. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and since this is true, why do we waste so much time trying to find a reason to hate someone else?
The irrational paradox I have never been able to reconcile is simply this: for Christians who judge the person or practices of another to be sinner or sin, shouldn’t we want those we deem sinners IN the church rather than OUT? If our purpose on earth is to bring people to Jesus the Christ, creating barriers to keep those who need God most from the church is indefensible. There should be a place for everyone in church — all of us are in the act of becoming. This is not to say anything goes, or that we tolerate any and all behavior and simply say, “Well, what can you expect? We’re all just sinners!” In true community, we are constantly striving to determine what it means for us to “do no harm, do all the good we can, and to attend to the ordinances of God.” We don’t let embezzlers manage the books, child molesters teach children’s Sunday school, or those with criminal records take the youth group on retreat. We use some common sense, and we make decisions together as a community. This is the heart of accountability. We do it together, and we do it with everyone inside instead of deciding who belongs and who doesn’t. Were we to simply accept the fact that there is no “them,” there in ONLY “us” we would be a different kind of people, a different kind of church.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if General Conference could be a model of true community instead of a mere legislative body? Wouldn’t it be cool if we would spend as much time discerning God’s will for God’s church as we do trying to institutionalize the church we want? Wouldn’t it be wonderful is “God is love” were more than a bumper sticker or a coffee mug slogan? You know what? We could make it happen if we really wanted it to. Problem is, we simply don’t like some of “those people,” and if we let “them” in then we don’t think we’ll stay…
Wow. Those letters are truly shocking. Not surprising, I suppose, but still hard to believe people say such things.
I keep a folder I call my “letter to the editor hall of fame,” but most are not scary like these, just Luddite laments and just plain funny ones, like the man who enclosed with his letter a photo of his cat chasing a black bear up a tree. “The cat’s name is Confucius,” he wrote. “I do not know the bear’s.”
“I assume most of these people to be normal, well-meaning, sincere individuals who are motivated by what they believe to be solid, accurate, valid and moral worldviews.”
I reread the letters you received after reading this statement. While the statement I believe is true, there is an underlying issue that I believe is the problem. Fear. Such strong language comes from a place of fear. Fear of not being 100% right. Fear of change. Fear of truth. Comfort is found on the right or left (both sides think their views are correct), uncertainty is the space in between. I think it requires more of a person to be in the middle than the outsides. In the middle, you can admit you’re wrong or that there is another valid opinion. In the middle, you can recognize your biases, figure out why you have them and work on changing. In the middle, there is a willingness for compromise. In the middle, you see the difference between agreement and acceptance. In the middle, you can decide to go right or left on certain issues. In the middle, there are no rules or steps to follow precisely. Some people are afraid of the middle. When you have a conference made up of right, middle, left, it’s hard to visualize what a middle would look like.