The Raleigh Rant
In 2003 some friends and I spent Thanksgiving in Prague. A decade earlier the small country had been divided into two nations: The Czech Republic and Slovakia. Fortunately, they did not have to undergo a civil war, as happened with the break-up of Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, the United States of America also is no longer one nation. We are divided into categories.
By federal laws or regulations, we have certain "protected categories" of people considering race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability, or citizenship. We have "unprotected categories" that may be protected under state or local laws or regulations, such as sexual orientation, gender identity, economic status, educational level or ability, or place of residence.
In fact, these so-called categories have become defacto lines of division and discrimination not only within states but also within the nation. As this last election clearly demonstrated, we are divided along many lines that separate us. These conflicts make the plea for unity ring empty and hollow. We have not come to the point of a civil war again, but we have daily protests, harassment, and various acts of both verbal and physical violence. We are a nation at war with itself.
I do not presume to offer a solution. I am at war within myself. My Christianity demands that I be loving, kind, forgiving, and accepting (not just tolerating) of all people, but there are those I literally despise. I shall not name them here because they probably also despise me. I will state that many who claim the name of Christians demonstrate that they are not with their vitriol and hatred both in speech and action.
The focus of this blog has been about the divisions within Christianity regarding sexual orientation, and specifically the 40-year debate within the United Methodist Church. Some claim the priority of dogma as a sacred covenant, in this case The Book of Disciple. Others claim the teachings of Jesus as their primary authority. We separate over even how to interpret the Holy Bible and what it means or how we are to use it. This endless debate has driven many millennials away from the church as being irrelevant to their lives or beliefs. They don't want anything to do with organized religion and the church empires that often are focused around some dynamic personalities rather than a love of God.
This is the season of Advent. A time of hope, reflection, prayer, and anticipation of a new world order that will bring about the end of war and division. God help us all.
The results of the recent Presidential election reveal less about the candidates than they do about the status of the nation. One hundred and fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, we still are filled with racial hatred. One hundred years after women achieved the right to vote, they still are treated as second-class citizens. A decade after the Supreme Court struck down the sodomy laws, lesbian, gay, and transgender people still are harassed, hated, discriminated against, and even murdered with impunity.
As a progressive, I have believed in the forward march of humanity to progress beyond our primitive natures toward a kinder, gentler form that was less aggressive, hostile, and ignorant. This political movement based on a fear of "others" is not limited to the United States as we have seen a revolt in Europe against accepting refugees and the flight of the United Kingdom from the European Union. Again, it is less a question of economics and more a question of a regression to more nationalistic, war-like policies that appeal to people's baser instincts. This provides the opportunity for demagogues who will say or do anything to achieve control and to assume a more dictatorial and less democratic system of governing. Democracy is still somewhat of a novelty in most of Africa, Asia, and the Mid-East. We appear to be in a stage of becoming more like Russia.
We often associate democracy with Christianity, but as we have seen last week, the most extreme proponents of a very narrow-minded version of Christianity not only opposed the ideals of equality but were motivated by an extreme hatred of all minorities. Angry, old white men don't quite explain the unexpected results of the election. Unemployed or under-employed workers in the Midwest may have given Trump the Electoral College votes he needed, but they did not represent the majority of voters. Commentators have tried to explain the vote on the basis of the urban and rural divide as though everyone who lived in cities was smart, educated, and progressive. The financial markets, oil & gas industries, and some major corporations were more interested in perpetuating their tax and economic advantages than in saving democracy. Former President Jimmy Carter has stated that we already have a system of oligarchy that rivals the era of the giant trusts of the 1890's.
Some of the naive progressives hope that Trump's outrageous manner may change when he assumes the Presidency. As Matthew Vines tweeted, "since Trump already has lied about so many of his promises, why should we believe him now when he says he will govern for all of the people." Just look at the transition team he is building and the probable cabinet appointments. We are looking at a Republican Party, Congress, and President who resemble that of the 1920's.
We will need more than hope and prayers to counter this anti-democratic theocracy based on greed, wealth, fear, and privilege. We must create a movement that has real political power larger than just a reformation of the Democratic Party that has failed us all. I will concede that Trump was at least right on that point.
Discern, Dialogue, Debate
The church has been discussing the issue of homosexuality for decades. This extended debate has caused some Protestant denominations to split, and the Methodists are struggling to prevent it. The 2016 General Conference enacted a special commission to seek "A Way Forward." The members of the commission recently were appointed and probably will meet in November about when the Council of Bishops will meet.
In a recent blog post for Religion News Service, Jonathan Merritt posted an opinion piece about "On LGBT issues, how can Christians disagree in a loving way?" He quotes from a book that summarizes a scientific study of the issue. The discussion was broader than just the theology of sin and same sex marriage in the church. Merritt is a frequent contributor to RNS and the Atlantic Magazine. The book he cites is only one of dozens on the subject. For more info on his blogging and books, see his web site: jonathanmerritt.com.
I also recently read a book "For the Sake of the Bride" by Steve Harper. He is a Methodist pastor who is still struggling with the issue in his own mind, and to me his book seemed weak in that his primary recommendation is to form a "roundtable" that sounds suspiciously similar to the commission. We've had a "Bishop's Unity Dialogue" in North Carolina for 14 years that has changed nothing in terms of policy and produced endless discussions with no compromise on either side. I have two more books in my Kindle list to read, but my intention here is not to provide a series of book reviews.
I raise the question of why the church, that is supposed to lead in loving kindness, has been so far behind business and government in reconciling the issue. Of course, several court cases had a lot to do with it. But they have moved on and discovered the benefits of banning discrimination in any form or category. It's bad for business, particularly in recruiting, and it's bad for government because it gets tied up in endless haggling over minor details and wording in laws and regulations.
The religious right sees it as an issue of defending church dogma based upon the interpretation of a few scriptures in the Bible, and the LGBT community sees it as an issue of social justice. If they can be legally married or safe in their apartment or job, why can't they be safe in church? For thousands of years, the church has been a place of refuge.
Well, LGBT people are welcome as long as you don't try to serve in any official capacity or agree to remain celibate. The most unfortunate consequence of this lengthy debate over dogma has been not only the hurt and pain it has caused for those LGBT folks excluded from full participation in the church, but the fact that many straight people consider the church irrelevant because it is preoccupied with internal issues rather than serving the world.
A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand
Lincoln used this phrase in a speech preceding the Civil War. We’re not quite to the point of a civil war, but our nation certainly is divided. I cannot recall a period when we have been so polarized over social, economic, environmental, religious, and political issues. We’ve been bombarded with political diatribes and ads for almost a year to where I’ve almost reached the point of mental and emotional exhaustion.
The United Methodist Church has been divided over one social issue for 40 years that is threatening to tear apart the denomination. In fact, some are suggesting a secession as the only solution. The arguments have become more than a distraction; the debate over dogma has created a climate of hostility that is as angry as our political debates. Some have called for compromise, but none have been able to define what that might be.
The election of a lesbian bishop recently will be a spark at the next meeting of the Council of Bishops that may blow up the whole debate and finally create an administrative division of the no-longer United Methodist Church. When, where, and how this new division may take place remains to be seen, but it appears to be increasingly inevitable. The calls for Christian Unity ring hollow as they simply cover up an attitude of maintaining the status quo, which is unacceptable to all sides.
Dialogue, discernment, and delay to many appear to be simply political stall tactics preventing any change either in attitude or beliefs. We are at a point where our differences seem irreconcilable. Now the discussion has moved on to how to divide the power, the properties, and the apportionments.
The issue of transgender and gender identity within the past year have reached a crisis point here in North Carolina that has had national repercussions. It may, or may not be resolved at the November election, but the debate already has had devastating consequences for the state. Let’s hope that the debate within the church over sexuality will not have similar consequences for the United Methodist Church. It is no longer an issue of interpretation of a few scriptures of the Bible nor about obedience to the covenant of the Book of Discipline. The church already has broken that covenant with the lie of “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” We’re about as hostile and unwelcoming as it can get.
The United Methodist Church already is an outlier compared with other mainstream Protestant denominations, some of which have split. We may face the disaster of being perceived as irrelevant in the lives of most people. They simply are leaving any form of organized religion. We are a secular nation that professes to be Christian but does not practice the principles of Christianity.
Yes, we have some non-denominational mega-churches formed around the personality of a particular preacher, but we’ve seen what happened to that type of organization with the collapse of the Crystal Cathedral in recent years. Surely the churches will change in form and structure as society makes new demands for services, just as it has done with the schools. We must become in mission, not only to those in far-away lands. Faith, hope, and love are the answers to the problems we face if only we have to courage to live them out in our personal lives as well as within the structure we call the church. If we continue to focus only on that which divides us, we never will find solutions.
This term is used often to describe the U.S. Congress. Because of the divisive partisan politics, they have been unable to take action even on issues in which there is common agreement. The popular view of the Congress as dysfunctional has resulted in an attitude that all aspects of government are corrupt, inefficient, and stuck in the status quo to maintain access only by the privileged few. Recent controversial decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court have produced backlashes in state houses with reactive legislation, that in many cases have been over-ruled. As a result, the nation has become even more divided with protests, counter-protests, and random acts of violence.
Among the oldest protest movements was the Protestant Revolution. This “protest-ant” against the Roman Catholic Church challenged the status quo in which the clergy ruled with an iron hand, and the laity was shut out. In the centuries since then, the Protestants have splintered into dozens of denominations. Even the old mainline denominations: The Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians have divided over various issues. The Methodist Episcopal Church split over the issue of slavery and took 80 years to re-unite. The United Methodist Church now threatens to divide again. A narrow majority want to maintain the status quo on doctrine as defined in The Book of Discipline. They have been arguing about one issue for more than 40 years.