Sunday, March 10, 2013

Winning an Ideology War Won't Save the UMC [Lo-Cal Snacks 03]

Oh my goodness, I can't believe it's been an entire month since I last posted in this series. Mea Culpa. I probably should not have planned such a long series with so many crazy weeks in the middle, but what's done is done. In the interim, I interviewed with the Board of Ordained Ministry to be considered as a candidate for commissioning as an Elder in the UMC- and I passed! *Kermit the Frog voice* Yaaaayyyyy! Today, I just finished a concert cycle with Chorus Pro Musica that included very difficult music, including quite a bit of Bach. I came back from the BOM and almost immediately went into concert week. Whew! It was tiring but more than worthwhile.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand. In our series so far, we have talked about things that folks sometimes think will "save" the UMC, but which will actually do the opposite. Last week month (groan), we looked at the Worship Wars in the church. This installment is on something similar, but more insidious and harder to stamp out: Ideology Wars.

The media are fond of phrases like "culture wars" and "class warfare". The global UMC encompasses so many cultures and social stratifications throughout the world that we are always working to bridge these gaps in order to do God's work in the world. But unfortunately, we have been caught in battles over ideology almost since our inception in 1968. The 1984 General Conference resolved a fight over the Wesleyan Quadrilateral that had been raging since 1972 when we passed the Our Theological Task portion of the Book of Discipline. Also since 1972, we have been in disagreement over homosexuality (and, to a lesser extent, abortion). It seems as if almost every conversation had at General Conference, and Annual Conferences as well, falls into the ideology ruts of American political parties. Given that we are a global church, that's bad news. And given the recent polarization of American political rhetoric, that's terrible news.

The UMC is not the only church with this problem, however! Certain groups and leaders that are part of America's religious right have been major players in national conversations over life issues (particularly abortion), evolution, and homosexuality in the last 50 years or so, and have allowed polarities to arise. We expect people to be either pro-life or pro-choice; anyone who tries to articulate care for both mother and baby is hard-pressed to succinctly and clearly explain such a position (though the UMC Social Principles do a darn good job of it). Likewise, we are expected to either believe in creationism or evolution; though many people believe in both, they are often afraid to say so. The highly polemical discussions taking place in the media and in the church today tend to place people in ideological "camps" without really giving them the time or space to thoroughly explore the issue. We start to make assumptions about people based on the way their views align with political party platforms. For example: a person who is pro-life is, ironically, likely to oppose gun control. In other words, we pre-judge them.

Evolutionary psychologists have found that this is just how the brain works. We make categories, and then when we encounter a new person or thing, we attempt to place them into the correct category. This is a survival mechanism. If we know that large animals with sharp teeth can hurt us, we realize that it's a good idea to avoid large animals with sharp teeth. Our ancestors survived because they were able to predict when certain actions were advantageous or certain situations were dangerous. Today, in a society that is highly socially developed (and in which we go into the supermarket for food rather than into the jungle), this tendency doesn't serve us so well.  

Lately (as in, within the last 60 years), it seems as if the Church has majored in judgment. When I was home in Ashland recently, I recalled a local church's policy of prohibiting women who have engaged in premarital sexual relations from wearing a white dress or being married in the sanctuary (they are relegated to the basement). This is just one example of some of the judgments rendered in churches yesterday and today. And recent research in partnership with the Barna group has shown that young people are receiving a message of judgment. People ages 16-29 believe Christians are: antihomosexual (91%), judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), too political (75%), out of touch with reality (72%), and insensitive to others (70%). These people, who are largely outside the Church by now, "firmly... reject-- and feel rejected by-- Christians". Ouch.

This research is borne out in experience of real UMC ministers. A friend of mine, the Dean of the Chapel at Syracuse University, read the following statements her students' papers a few weeks ago (I obtained permission to quote them from her):

"I can't be Christian because I had a child out of wedlock."
"I am not Christian because I believe in evolution."
"I am not a Christian because I don't believe a loving God would send people to hell."
"I am not a Christian because I don't think gay people are sinners."
"I can't be a Christian because I am divorced."
"I am not a Christian because I don't believe people of other faiths are damned."

And while I'm thinking of Syracuse University, I also read an article about a student there who identifies as Pagan and Christian. She describes her participation in campus groups of both faiths, and she calls the Pagan group “the most accepting community I’ve ever been a part of". She's part of a Christian group and a non-Christian group, and it's the non-Christian group that is the most accepting! We are a tradition built on the example of a man who touched lepers and hung around with prostitutes and tax collectors. Jesus taught us that faith is not about following a bunch of rules to the letter. And yet here we are, judging as the Pharisees did, based upon our own rules which we follow inconsistently.

Now there are plenty of good people in the Church and it's easy to think, "Well, outsiders just don't know us. If they got to know us better, they would see we're not that bad." It's true that getting to know diverse people helps dispel misjudgements. But, as one author recently wrote of good people who have racist views, "I knew that I was tired of good people, that I had had all the good people I could take." Church, the rising generation has had all the Good Church People it can take.

Some folks try to make the case that winning an ideology war over a specific issue will bring young people back to the church. Both liberals and conservatives made this case about homosexuality in their floor speeches at General Conference 2012. They have a point. In Seattle, our current stance on this issue is ruining the Christian witness of our sisters and brothers there. Likewise, to change our official stance would ruin the Christian witness of our sisters and brothers in the Congo. We need to find a way to coexist as Christians who have different opinions and different ministry contexts without ruining each others' witnesses, but that's a discussion for another day. This is an evangelism problem in specific cultural contexts, and coming to a forced resolution on the issue of homosexuality will not be a panacea that "cures" the UMC of its ills. Either way, someone would leave, and those someones are valuable parts of our denominational body.

No, focusing on one social issue or another- and "winning" in official Church policy over that issue- will not save the UMC. It will further divide us and perhaps cause a schism. Like the Worship Wars, winning an Ideology War will not "save" the UMC. So... what will? We begin to find out the answer to that next week (I promise)!

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