We v. They

Like everyone else, Raleigh Hayes saw the world, and the people with whom he was obliged to share it, through the kaleidoscope of his own colored designs.  As the years turned the viewer round and round, the bits of glass fell into new patterns, but the perspective remained limited to Raleigh’s eye.  (Handling Sin, Michael Malone, 1983)

Not everyone agrees with this premise, but I am of a mind that everyone sees the world, not as it truly is, but through a set of personal and unique filters that makes an individual worldview.  As we encounter others, we bond most closely with those who share key elements of our worldview.  This makes for a grand and glorious bell curve of subjective worldviews that we embrace as objective reality.  The truth is out there, and each of us brush up against it, but none of us own it.  It is through this kaleidoscope effect that we polarize and politicize and project.  It creates the frame and forum for “us/them; we/they; right/left; right/wrong” thinking that defines our modern/post-modern U.S. culture in the early 21st century.  This comes clear to me as I look at comments made about my reflections on the work of our General Boards and agencies of The United Methodist Church.

A common thread is the idea that our boards have an agenda they pursue in opposition of the will of the larger church:  they are not honoring what we believe.  But who actually is the “they/we” referred to?  I worked for almost fifteen years at the General Board of Discipleship.  During those years we presented well over a hundred petitions, resolutions, and proposals to General Conference.  But not once did we do so in a vacuum disconnected from the larger church.  Here’s how it works:

Board/agency staff and elected members engage constantly with individuals, congregations, conferences, and conference leaders across the denomination.  A primary role is to watch, listen, observe and partner.  Issues arise through these engagements and individuals and groups begin crafting legislation based on a consensus — while out system is flawed, those ideas, concepts and proposals that do NOT have wide support die early or get weeded out through the rigorous and cumbersome process of our connectional church.  Very few proposals make it through the process without enormous pushback and debate, and many pieces of legislation go forward with their opposite number — yin/yang style.  For example, our language and position on homosexuality — about an equal number move forward for both inclusion and exclusion.  It becomes the will of the General Conference which will be adopted — and the General Conference is made up of delegates from our churches and conferences (not our board and agency staff).

I can speak from experience — our Boards and agencies work with church leadership at all levels to improve, perfect, change, correct, revise and redeem our Book of Discipline — but they simply do not, can not operate independently of the larger church.  There is no “we/they” at this point — our Book of Discipline, including our Social Principles are OUR doing; it is all WE.  I have had the privilege of working with Discipleship, Global Ministries, Communications, Church & Society, Finance and Administration, Publishing House and Higher Ed over the years and I can tell you quite honestly that no one is completely happy with everything contained in the Book of Discipline, but each and every one does everything they can to support the doctrine of our church and to provide resources that carry out the collective wisdom therein contained.  They may not like it, but they do it, and they do it with integrity.

Most of the criticisms and complaints I have received are grounded in misinformation, incomplete information, ignorance, personal bias, or a simple matter of not liking what the larger church has decided.  If you look at the majority of criticisms they line out this way:

  • we disagree with how money is spent
  • we don’t think we have responsibility for <insert group of people here>
  • we do not want to accept/include <insert group of people here>
  • our reading of the Bible differs from the majority interpretation (at this moment in time)
  • we should not focus on non-Christians, those we deem “un-Christian,” sinners, or those who are significantly different from us who make us uncomfortable, insecure or who may force us to change.

Take just these five cases off the table and you eliminate 95% of the criticisms and complaints against our general church agencies.

We have a somewhat less than elegant system of legislative change in our denomination.  We may not like it, but it is our current reality.  It is a representative structure of governance (that all too many people confuse with a democracy — which we do not now, nor ever have we had) that relies on a legislative process designed to create winners and losers.  Interestingly, for the past few decades we have leaned toward the kinder, gentler, more compassionate global acts of inclusion while being much more restrictive in the U.S. We vote liberal/progressive, but we complain conservative/exclusive.  What drives me crazy is that this isn’t even a case of majority rules — the passionate extremes debate and criticize, but our majority at the moment is apathetic and disengaged.  We are fast becoming a denomination of the scrupulously disinterested.  On most of the “hot” issues in The United Methodist Church, between 54 and 63% of our membership have no opinion or don’t care which way things are decided.  No matter what our doctrine or polity are at the moment, the issues are being decided by a splinter of the church, not the true consensus of the whole body.  Our “critical issues” are essentially being decided 3-to-2 in favor with 10 abstentions.  What are we going to do about that?

Reread the quote at the beginning of this blog.  What will it take for us to lift the filters, realize that our kaleidoscope is not reality, no matter how pretty and “true” we think it is, and to begin operating more by grace than by Law, by tolerance than by judgment, and with a deeper appreciation that we can accomplish more by working together than by constantly debating which side we are on?

8 replies

  1. Rex – part of the reason for the disinterested is a result of situations that Betsy describes. When people try to express what they see and understand, they get shut down. You can’t stay engaged when you are constantly told to shut up and sit down.Until we learn how to dialog – to actually listen to each other and understand that EVERYONE has something of value to contribute, it will continue as it has.

    • Yes, that is one cause. One I’ve experienced in the extreme. But I have also observed disinterest, even active avoidance, in areas of clearly defined responsibility, e.g. Trustees and safety, Evangelism and participation of the homebound in the life of the congregation, and culmination of discernment by the body through church local conference. Effort, whether to listen and compromise, or go out to the last, the lost, and the least, seems too much to ask of our club members.

  2. “What drives me crazy is that this isn’t even a case of majority rules — the passionate extremes debate and criticize, but our majority at the moment is apathetic and disengaged. We are fast becoming a denomination of the scrupulously disinterested.” I’ve seen this operate at ALL levels of The UM Church – right down to congregational sub-committees.

  3. The dualist mindset of which you speak is a product of the scientific method: there is one correct answer and everything else is incorrect. That has been drilled into us from a very early age, espcially in school (including higher ed). However, mythology and philosophy doesn’t necessarily work that way, and we know almost nothing about them as a society. It is why we try to read the bible through a scientific lens and why we also miss the major points of the bible when doing so. We try to take a world view (a philosophy) which I would argue is based on a story (a mythology), and we try to do it scientifically with winners and losers. Often the philosophy is based on the philosophers of cable news or political pundits, the mythology is based on “the American Dream” or “American Independance” and it is read scientifically, as in [insert political party] is the only correct answer. Notice something? There is no Jesus involved. And there hasn’t been for quite some time.

    Also, Gil Rendle is correct. A democratic church structure will never work because we always vote with self-interest (or self-preservation) in mind.

  4. I very much agree with your assesment that we all look at the world based on our “unique” filters–it can’t be helped. However, we can open up ourselves to understanding where the other person is coming from. My mantra/frustration with the local church the last decade is the lack of searching for common ground, find where we can “meet in the middle” and we all just might grow some and learn something new.

    A case in point; I was sitting on finance committee. Credit card giving raised its head. For me it was an ugly issue because credit card debt plagued my life because of my father. At the time there were no scars from the ordeal of dealing with his simultaneous death and financial collapse, only wounds. I realized this though and I worked hard not to make the issue “about me and my trauma”. I spent months on the internet researching the issue every which way I could think of, so my decision was an informed one, not an emotional one. But yet my trauma was a driving force, it couldn’t be helped. In the end, it became all about somebody else’s “view of the world” and I was left with absolutely nowhere to stand on the issue. I went from feeling like I had something to contribute to I just needed to “hush up, go sit in my pew, and put my money in the plate.” And that was not the first time I had “heard” that message loud and clear. It became the “final straw” that pushed me clear out the door. Did the individuals who did what they did intend for that to be the “end result”? No. But they not only “silenced me”, they pushed me out the door.

  5. I very much enjoy your blog, but strenuously object to the use of language like this:

    “For example, our language and position on homosexuality — about an equal number move forward for both inclusion and exclusion.”

    This is precisely the kind of language you attribute to – and notice originating from – your commenters:

    “’…us/them; we/they; right/left; right/wrong’ thinking that defines our modern/post-modern U.S. culture in the early 21st century.”

    I have yet to meet an orthodox Christian who believes anyone should be “excluded,” and framing disagreement on this issue in loaded terms like this is not helpful. It is a result of the very mindset your post decries.

    • This may be a case of semantics. I use a very basic definition of both inclusion and exclusion and do not charge either with malicious intent. The God Hates Fags contingent of Fred Phelps has proponents in The United Methodist Church. Whether you consider Baptists and Methodists as “orthodox” is a matter of choice, but I think there is a level of “inclusion/exclusion” that goes beyond criteria and standards of acceptance… and it is VERY real.

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