At what point do differences become irreconcilable? Visualize a normal bell-curve. At each extreme, there are polarized, immovable positions. Three to five percent are so committed to being right and having their own way, that they no longer engage in any interaction that might influence their opinion. These opponents are intractable and irrational. Each end of the curve has its reasons, its arguments, its definition of truth, and its limited worldview. Each believes they are wise, insightful, fair-minded, clear and right. There is absolutely nothing to be gained by listening to those either too ignorant or unenlightened to be reasoned with. It is a waste of time to debate what any intelligent person accepts as fact. So, six to ten percent are composed to fight, argue, resist, reject, refute, and dispute. This who they are, and there is almost no likelihood that they will change. It is disastrous when opposing fringe elements define the conversation for the whole.
And isn’t this where we are in our U.S. church culture? The tail is wagging the dog. The minority hold the majority hostage. Calls for unity and reconciliation fall on deaf ears because of the din coming from the wings. And the center lacks leadership. I have been functioning as the proverbial fly-on-the-wall to a few conversations concerning the Commission our bishop’s have been charged to form following General Conference. I applaud their decision not to rush into setting the membership, but I do question if it is a way to enable a more thoughtful and strategic approach or simply evidence that they don’t have a clue what should happen. Meanwhile, the polar sides are plotting and planning.
One conversation is discussing a “Miracle on 34th Street” maneuver. They want to inundate the commission with LGBTQ weddings, leaders, supporters, legislation from a variety of states in an overwhelming avalanche of evidence that the time has come for the church to enter the real world. Another conversation sees an unquestionable opportunity to establish the authority of scripture to set for all time church law that will settle the matter for all time and drive LGBTQ and friends out of the church. A third conversation is all about how to sabotage and undermine the process so that it makes the commission look foolish and impotent. All very healthy, uplifting, kind and generous approaches. Getting our act together to destroy our opponents. So Sermon on the Mount.
Why is winning so important? Because we are viewing everything through the lenses of people who think truth is simple and that there are limits and boundaries to God’s love, grace, kindness, mercy and justice. The fringes are afraid, and fear is always a sucky motivator. One side is afraid they will be invalidated as beloved children of God. When a member of the LGBTQ community is told they are unacceptable as a child of God and that only by renouncing who God made them to be will they ever be welcome, anger rooted in fear of ostracism and rejection is a normal response. When a member of the conservative, traditional, rules-based church hears that scripture is open to interpretation and that context, meaning, and application change across the ages, they fear that all they believe in is but a house of cards, easily destroyed by changing the rules. One sides truth is the other side’s heresy.
There are two concepts that I have learned from Jewish brothers over the years that I think could be helpful. The first is a proverb a rabbi in New Jersey shared with me when I was in seminary: “when faced with two options, choose the third.” The second was a simple planning process tool. Any time a group got stuck in “either/or — win/lose” thinking, he would draw a star of David and place the two opposing options on two points of the star. Then, discussion proceeded to put yet another choice on each of the remaining four points. It is amazing how quickly people become creative and unstuck when challenged to discern six possible outcomes.
There are three things that must occur for us to come to any kind of harmonious solution to our current hostilities.
- The United Methodist Church in the United States must own up to the fact that we cannot call the shots for the entire planet. What we are encountering in the church in the U.S. is contextually unique, and involves a complex and specific chemistry. Africa cannot determine our outcome. Europe cannot determine our outcome. Emerging Pacific Rim and Eurasian populations cannot determine our outcome. We must own a decision that addresses only The UMC in the USA.
- The majority middle must take control of the conversation, and limit the influence and rhetoric of the extremes. We know the sides. It is fairly straightforward. One side is ready to accept LGBTQ fully and completely (for a wide variety of reasons) and one side is not (for a wide variety of reasons).
- We must allow those who absolutely cannot abide the decision of the majority to leave and find a faith communion more to their liking. At last count, there is somewhere over 1,100 different denominations, para-church affiliations, religious Christian organizations, etc. There is something out there for everyone, but to date no one church has been able to please everyone. It will be hard to say goodbye to brothers and sisters who choose to leave, but it must be the choice and right of each individual.
Year’s ago, I met with a group of Christians to discuss creation and evolution and to come to a consensus as to where we felt the church should stand. We had ardent creationists and biblical fundamentalists proclaiming young earth and intelligent design. We had scientists giving absolute credence to science and skeptical acquiescence to religion. But the time we spent together was amazing. We used an Open Space process (see Harrison Owen). Everyone in attendance was invited three months in advance to develop a white paper of their choosing to defend their thinking and position. They needed to be documented, thoroughly annotated, and they would have floor time at the gathering to present a summary. We developed a set of criteria by which to judge the logic, value, veracity, and persuasiveness of each paper. Each paper and presentation was then vetted and judged by a jury of five people randomly selected, who applied the criteria. They heard the presentation, conferred, and shared their opinion. Then the room had opportunity to discuss each decision in small groups. By the end of three days, 125 United Methodists from across the full theological spectrum arrived at four conclusions.
- There is inadequate and unpersuasive evidence and argument for creationism at its most literal. The earth could not be thousands of years old, intelligent design arguments are flawed and insufficient, showing bias, and the Bible does not contain a complete explanation for all that science reveals.
- Evidence for evolution is indisputable. While Darwinian evolution through natural selection is incomplete and has unexplained gaps, it is an elegant explanation for the development and variety of species, and does not directly conflict with God as creator. Evolution could be the natural process God uses.
- Science is a gift from God that was not clearly or fully understood in the premodern context of the ancient Middle East. As human reasoning and intelligence developed, so has our capacity to understand and make sense of the natural world. The Bible does not speak of things too sophisticated or complex for the audience of its time.
- Teaching biblical creation stories as metaphor does not imply they are false, but highlight the ways people of faith understood the mysteries of God. There were things unrevealed to ancient men and women that they conjectured based on the best thinking and wisdom of the time. The metaphoric explanation of biblical creation is an indication of God’s work in and through the creativity of humankind. All things — science and religion — work together for good, though those who believe in God.
A number of participants commented after the event that they would never have believed so many concessions could be made, and so many hard-held beliefs could be softened to bring us to a place of consensus. What I learned from the event is that nothing good can come by avoiding difficult subjects. The only way to resolve differences is to meet them head-on in a respectful, intelligent, and intentional way.