Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.


Laying Down our Methodist Swords -- A "thank you" to Kathryn Johnson

I have just ordered a copy of the Zion Herald magazine's new book Hardball on Holy Ground: The Religious Right v. the Mainline for the Church's Soul, edited by Stephen Swecker. Swecker is a smart and balanced guy, a thoughtful and skilled editor, so I will read the book. Still, the appearance of another book on this topic makes me nervous.

Like United Methodism @ Risk: A Wake Up Call written by Leon Howell, I worry its very existence will foment more heat than light. While the so-called "renewal" groups in the mainline churches need to be held accountable, as do we all, fighting fire with fire makes it likely we will burn down the whole village.

Publicity materials for Hardball include a quote by Bob Edgar, head of the National Council of Churches: "Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and others will be dismayed to learn that the churches they love are targets of a campaign of destabilization. We ignore this reality at our peril."

I suppose Edgar might be accurate about some of the players in the mainline church renewal movements: those professional fundraisers who raise money by playing on the anxiety of ordinary people confused by changes they don't understand. The fundraising letters, written I assume by some firm specializing in doing this, pander shamelessly to people's fears.

But I also know other members of the renewal movements whom I believe --even when we disagree on basic concerns and perspectives-- to be fully sincere, honorable, and in love with the United Methodist Church. They, like those of us working for a more inclusive church, are not conducting "a campaign of destabilization," but are trying to build a denomination consistent with their understanding of the Gospel.

In a review of United Methodism @ Risk, Swecker and Andrew Weaver likewise go too far in labeling the motives of people with whom we disagree: "... the political right seeks to gain top leadership positions in the church by spreading misleading information and incendiary allegations against organizations and individuals. These groups employ the propaganda method of 'wedge issues' like abortion and homosexuality to cause confusion, dissension and division. Mr. Howell persuasively demonstrates that the IRD [Institute for Religion and Democracy] and other self-proclaimed 'renewal groups' are uninterested in genuine dialogue, desiring only to impose their belief systems on the target churches."

I am afraid that this kind of polarizing weakens us. It gives us permission to be a tad baser and more extreme than we might otherwise be. They are so bad, we think, that we can --nay, must-- nail them back. We become more and more like what we suppose our enemy to be.

This is why I am mightily impressed by the address Kathryn Johnson, executive director of the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA), delivered at the organization's Voices of Faith conference held last April in Los Angeles. I have thought about her speech often since I heard her deliver it. What she had to say was a powerful reminder of our self-definition as followers of Jesus Christ. Many of us in her audience last April have been so frustrated that, I suspect, we may have begun to forget who we are.

Entitled Lest We Lose Sight of the Vision: Laying Down Our Swords Within the United Methodist Church, Johnson's speech draws heavily on the work of Roger Conner of Search for Common Ground, an organization that mediates between warring parties on a global basis.

Johnson lays out four guidelines suggested by Conner about how to creatively engage those with whom we strongly disagree:

1. Be passionate. It is okay to be passionate about what we believe to be true, just, and beautiful.

2. Be honest about who we are. It is important that we state clearly and directly the positions we believe in and the positions we believe to be wrong. We don't need to fudge or apologize.

3. Be respectful. Here there are two sub-points: a) Call people by the name they want to be called. If my name is "pro-choice," don't call me "pro-abortion," Johnson says. If there are those who choose to call themselves a "renewal group," call them by their name and expect them to live up to it. b) Do not speculate on other's motives. If someone says they want the church to be more Christlike, do not assume they really are just interested in power. Accusing others of base motives is terribly divisive and often wrong.

4. Be truthful. Here there are four sub-points: a) No guilt by association. I find us doing this more and more. So-and-so, who was on the board of this-or-that group, was also a member of this-or-that awful organization, so the group we don't like must have the same horrible agenda. Johnson asks us to stop doing this. b) No caricature, exaggeration, or "straw-man" debate techniques. c) Hold people who disagree with us up to the standard of their highest values. d) Hold ourselves to the standards of our highest values. This is exactly what Johnson is doing in her speech; she is holding us to the standard we say we believe in.

Johnson adds one more guideline of her own. She says: "I believe that we also need to recognize the truth in one another. ... I believe, and I am aware that all present may not share this belief, that each of us, conservative or progressive, Good Newser or MFSAer, that each of us holds some truth."

This is a gutsy speech. A lot of us who were in the room to hear it were tired and frustrated. We have worked too long and too hard for too little progress. Johnson would have probably gotten a more enthusiastic response if she had chosen to go on the attack.

But I am convinced Johnson's speech is the word we need to hear at this point in the struggle. Not that we will stop working for the change that needs to come, and will come. But, in the process, it is critical that we remain graceful rather than accusatory, transparent rather than manipulative, assertive rather than reactive, direct rather than hostile.

Kathryn Johnson, thank you.


Blogger John said...

These are good guidelines for debate in any forum on any subject.

10:10 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home