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When Will the Tail Stop Wagging the #UMC Dog?

by Drew 9 Comments
Courtesy of Smallbones via Wikimedia Commons.

Courtesy of Smallbones via Wikimedia Commons.

When will the tail top wagging the dog? When will the whole United Methodist body cease to be driven hither and thither by what is really a small appendage?

I’m a longtime critic of the various caucus groups in the UMC.  While I don’t think they are all equally villainous, I do believe that on the whole they serve to draw resources from United Methodist pews that are better spent elsewhere.  Moreover, they form a sort of self-reinforcing system that goes something like this: RMN organizes to change the Book of Disciplinee; Good News fundraises to counter their efforts; Love Prevails then bounces off the “harmful” rhetoric of evangelicals and announces ahead of time that they plan to make sure nothing gets done in Portland which they don’t explicitly condone; then, finally, the IRD fills their coffers by reporting on the adolescent shenanigans of Justice’s Storm Troopers.  The caucuses have a sort of symbiotic relationship and form a vicious cycle.

These groups, in many ways, lead our denominational conversation – though I’m not at all convinced that, even all combined, they remotely represent the views of a majority of United Methodists.  I’m reminded of this quote from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, who noted that the bluster of radical groups often far outstrips their real influence:

“The vanity, restlessness, petulance, and spirit of intrigue, of several petty cabals, who attempt to hide their total want of consequence in bustle and noise, and puffing, and mutual quotation of each other, makes you imagine that our contemptuous neglect of their abilities is a mark of general acquiescence in their opinions. No such thing, I assure you.”

Despite the noise, there is no “general acquiescence” to the caucuses.  They are merely the loudest voices in the conversation.  If the Trump living nightmare candidacy has taught us nothing else, we’ve sure learned this: being loud, rude, disagreeable, loose with the facts, quick to attack, and light on nuance can actually get you a lot of attention.  It will even get you a seat at the table.  The committee in charge of organizing General Conference even met with the leaders of these groups last year.  Now, really, do we think this will placate the caucuses or embolden them?

Burke again would urge us not to take such tactics seriously:

“Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring…whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that, of course, they are many in number; or that, after all, they are other than the little, shriveled, meager, hopping, though loud and troublesome, insects of the hour.”

Portrait of Edmund Burke by Joseph Reynolds, public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Portrait of Edmund Burke by Joseph Reynolds, public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Most United Methodists do not share the priorities of the divisive caucuses.  A representative sample of over 500 parishioners was taken in 2014 to get a sense of the real priorities of the people who sit in our pews.  Sexuality did not even crack the top 5.

I see no future for us unless we stand up to the denominational hostage-takers and refuse to let the tail way the dog.  Much like Americans are experiencing in the national arena, denominational politics are not well served by letting the loudest, most divisive voices lead the conversation.  They don’t represent us.  They have every incentive to increase outrage and bend the truth to fund their own projects.

For the United Methodist Church to have a healthy and vital future, we cannot allow the most brutal voices to dictate the conversation.  We can do better.  We must do better.  But make no mistake: it’s up to us.  We, the vast majority of Methodists who love each and every one of their neighbors and want to make disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world, decide this future: the ways that we engage one another, the things we read and share, the delegates for whom we vote give away whether we are directing our mental, emotional, and other resources towards victory or agape.

The tail does not have to wag the dog. But that’s up to us.

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Pope Francis’ Address to the #UMC

His Holiness Pope Francis showing off the exact opposite of a 'funeral face,' courtesy Wikipedia.

His Holiness Pope Francis showing off the exact opposite of a ‘funeral face,’ courtesy Wikipedia.

In, “Wow, he never ceases to amaze” news, Pope Francis just dropped a Petrine hammer on his own inner circle.  The Vatican Curia – the upper echelon leaders of the vast Vatican administrative machine – got some coal in their mitres during what is usually a pretty benign Christmas address.  The short version: he said the Curia was sick. Of the 15 ‘ailments’ he named that are harming the life of the Roman Catholic Church, I thought a few especially applied to my own communion, the United Methodist Church.  The full list, and the original numbering, is found here from the AP, from which the following selections are quoted.  The commentary attached is my own.  See if you think the Holy Father’s words are fitting for today’s UMC:

1) Feeling immortal, immune or indispensable. “A Curia that doesn’t criticize itself, that doesn’t update itself, that doesn’t seek to improve itself is a sick body.”

Going on to perfection is kind of our thing, isn’t it?  In 2012, the UMC showed a remarkable ability to avoid self-improvement.  How can we become a healthy body instead of a sick body?

2) Working too hard. “Rest for those who have done their work is necessary, good and should be taken seriously.”

For too many Christians, lay and clergy alike, busyness has become a status symbol and an idol.  Why don’t our clergy preach sabbath? Why don’t our churches expect it of their pastors?

5) Working without coordination, like an orchestra that produces noise. “When the foot tells the hand, ‘I don’t need you’ or the hand tells the head ‘I’m in charge.'”

It is easy to look upon other corners of the church as backwards, or out there, or fruitless, or whatever.  But we are all in this together, folks. (By the by, Bishop Grant Hagiya recently had some great things to say about the Pacifict-Northwest, often dismissed by Methodists here in the Bible Belt, on episode #7 of the WesleyCast).  Moreover, coordination – aligning our ministries, resources, and energies – is critical to accomplishing our ministry.  See also #1.

6) Having ‘spiritual Alzheimer’s.’ “We see it in the people who have forgotten their encounter with the Lord … in those who depend completely on their here and now, on their passions, whims and manias, in those who build walls around themselves and becomes enslaved to the idols that they have built with their own hands.”

Ask about rescinding the Guaranteed Appointment and watch our clergy suddenly develop ‘spiritual Alzheimer’s.’

7) Being rivals or boastful. “When one’s appearance, the color of one’s vestments or honorific titles become the primary objective of life.”

We are too damned competitive with each other.  The megachurch pastors all want the number one spot.  The mid-size church in town competes with the large downtown church.  On a charge, the smaller church or churches feel inferior to the larger.  Clergy boast about “God’s work” in their church, sharing posts on social media about all the amazing things going on but really we just want our colleagues and superiors to think better of us. In internet parlance, this is called a “humblebrag.” All of this is poison. Pure poison.

9) Committing the ‘terrorism of gossip.’ “It’s the sickness of cowardly people who, not having the courage to speak directly, talk behind people’s backs.”

Christians should not be gossips, and we in the UMC are as guilty as anyone. We talk behind the backs of our pastors, our lay leadership, our bishops, etc..  We of all people know the power of words to make and unmake lives, galaxies, families, and churches.  Clergy should take the lead in condemning gossip in all its forms.  Dave Ramsey’s (I know, I know) take is helpful.  If you think Ramsey is too strong on this, remember – the Pope just called this terrorism.

12) Having a ‘funeral face.’ “In reality, theatrical severity and sterile pessimism are often symptoms of fear and insecurity. The apostle must be polite, serene, enthusiastic and happy and transmit joy wherever he goes.”

The subtext for too many of our denominational gatherings – international, national, and local – is death.  We Methodists wear the funeral face well. We shouldn’t.  As another Bishop of Rome, John Paul II, said, “We are Easter people and hallelujah is our song.”

14) Forming ‘closed circles’ that seek to be stronger than the whole. “This sickness always starts with good intentions but as time goes by, it enslaves its members by becoming a cancer that threatens the harmony of the body and causes so much bad — scandals — especially to our younger brothers.”

If all or most of your friends are on the same side as you, in the church or in the world – you need to rid yourself of this sickness.  Caucuses (such as the IRD, RMN, Good News, and Love Prevails) have done the UMC precisely what some of the Founders – quite correctly – warned that parties would do the the US.  If you want to affiliate with some sub-group of the UMC, fine; but we are contributing to the dissolution of the church and our own spiritual myopia if we only associate with like-minded folk.

There’s my annotated, partial list of Pope Francis’ recommendations for United Methodists.  What do you think?  What should be added? Might the UMC benefit from a similar speech from one of our Bishops?

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Barbarians at the Gate: Shock Politics, Civility, and the Demand for Total Surrender #UMC

Hadrian's Wall, built to keep out my ancestors. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Hadrian’s Wall, built to keep out my ancestors. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Historically, we build walls to keep out invasive forces.  For all the sentimental claptrap about “walls never stay standing,” the Great Wall of China and Hadrian’s Wall still stand as reminders that there is always a need to set limits between civil and uncivil forces.  There is a similar need now in the UMC.  The walls are metaphorical, of course, but no less important.

Some actions should simply be out of bounds, not just by all people of good will, but in particular by Christians ostensibly dedicated to a particular way of life called church.  As I’ve said before, one of those tactics is threatening schism, which is that much worse when it is claimed to be backed by anonymous minions.  Another is straight from the Howard Stern school of political engagement: the shock tactic.  In conservative Christian circles, one version of this is to show pictures of aborted babies as a way of convincing anyone in view of the horrors of the practice.  While I believe Christians should be concerned with the rights of the unborn, most people of faith agree that using dead babies to win political points in such a fashion is not becoming of ecclesial discourse.

But progressive Christians sometimes sink to the same level.  A video was recently made, occasioned by the Connectional Table’s request for input, that drew a straight line between a horrific, shaming event involving a youth pastor and the suicide of a young United Methodist college student.  Many pro-LGBT supporters shared and commented on this video, with little critical inquiry given as to whether or not the story of the young man’s suicide might be more complex than one (admittedly awful) incident.  Like pictures of aborted children, it is simply intended to shock into silence and consent.

Another problematic feature of the UMC conversation of late is the totalizing politics at play.  One of the great missteps of the 20th century was the Allies’ demand for total and unconditional surrender from Japan.  It is arguable that, had some negotiation been possible, the destruction wrought on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would not have been necessary.  When one gives up on conversation and the only outcome one can live with is surrender, tragedy often ensues.

To observe this in the UMC, consider the recent witch hunt for Richard Hays, NT professor and Dean of Duke University Divinity School.  Andy Oliver, a staff member for RMN, posted a profoundly misguided article  calling for Hays’ capitulation on a number of fronts, even recanting parts of one of his most famous books.  Oliver posted this with the kind of totalizing, threatening language that would make Good News proud (promising legions of anonymous supporters ready to strike).  In a political world where everyone who does not fully support your agenda is a contemptible enemy, one need not take the time to make rational arguments or reasonable demands.  If total surrender is your only acceptable outcome, you’ve already decided that no amount of eggs is too great to get the omelette of your dreams.*

The recent CT-sponsored panel discussion. Photo credit: UM Communications.

The recent CT-sponsored panel discussion. Photo credit: UM Communications.

When the barbarians are near, it’s time to remember that fences make good neighbors.  One need look no further for this than the recent Connectional Table-sponsored panel discussion based on Finding Our Way.  The fruitful dialogue was made possible because a band of insurgents was not allowed in the room, likely because they had already promised to do what they always do: (d)isrupt the stated agenda.  Whether this show of intestinal fortitude was a one-time experiment or a sudden lapse into strong leadership  by the Connectional Table remains to be seen.

We have serious matters before us.  We should spend the lead-in to General Conference 2016 in prayer, fasting, and holy conferencing.  Shock tactics and the politics of total surrender have no place in the Body of Christ, and all of us, no matter what side we are on, should demand better of one another.  Our leaders, in particular, have duty to order the life of the church so that fear and intimidation do not replace prayer and discernment.  In the words of Bishop Ken Carter, this is a call to do the work of Christ in the way of Christ; the aggressive politics of Congressional filibuster and campus protest has no place among those whose life is defined by the cross and resurrection.

The barbarians are at the gate, friends.  They are left and right, Reconciling and Confessing (to name just two).  We will either build walls and set some healthy boundaries agains those who wish to tear us apart, or we will be overrun by malignant forces among us who demand total surrender.  The choice is ours.

*An excellent rebuttal from the Indiana RMN affiliate to the atrocious hatchet job about Dean Hays can be found here.

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For the Sake of the Bride: Steve Harper on a Third Way

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If you care about the state of the Bride of Christ, the church. read this book. Soon.

Aren’t you tired?  Aren’t you worn out by all the nasty wrangling?  I think many of us are getting hungry for an alternative to the culture wars that dominate our political culture in the US and in the church.  In particular, the Mainline denominations, especially my own United Methodist Church, have been riven by partisanship that would make the most radical Tea Party or Code Pink gathering blush.

Myself and a growing number of others have been calling for an alternative kind of church, a better discourse, and more and more I sense a hunger in others for something deeper, less shrill, and more Christocentric than ideological.  If that sounds like you, then you are in luck. Retired seminary professor Steve Harper has just provided an excellent primer on why a third way is needed and what that path forward might look like in his new book For the Sake of the Bride.  Agree with his conclusions or not, I posit that it would be difficult for anyone to come away after reading this book without respect for Harper’s prayerful and heartfelt analysis both of our situation and a potential path through the present morass.

As someone who has invested a considerable amount of time in seeking out a Via Media between the extremes that dominate our church (and churches), I am deeply grateful to Dr. Harper for his work.  Below are collection of quotes pertaining especially to the third way as Harper narrates it (the largest number of quotes come from chapter 4, entitled “A Third Way”).  I highly encourage you to buy, read, share, and discuss this book with your classes and small groups as soon as possible.  In a perfect world, this would be required reading for all General Conference 2016 delegates, if for no other reason than its basic ecclesiological focus: a concern for the health of the Bride of Christ that is usually not evident in those who seek to tear her to shreds in order to get their way.

But enough from me.  Here is your sample – but make sure to pick it up and read it in full for yourself.  I would love to hear your own feedback on these quotes or the  full book in the comments section.

“Early in my experience I saw more clearly than ever before that Jesus was able to make friends with people who were unable to make friends with each other. I saw that this was a deliberate choice on his part […] In short, I saw the inability of dualistic thinking to take us where we need to go in restoring intended honor to the Bride.” (9)

“Dualistic thinking pervades nearly every part of our lives, especially evident in advertising, which reinforces the ‘good, better, best’ mentality and which (even if kindly) tells us that one product is superior to another. Dualistic thinking not only tempts us; it trains us to use the same tactics when we deal with people, places, and things. Almost without realizing it, we are conditioned to enter into life not simply differentiating, but dividing and conquering.  To come out of this process requires insight and courage. The insight is fundamentally that those who choose a third way will not be welcomed by either of the sides. And because we like to be liked– by somebody, anybody– we gravitate toward a side rather than calling the process of taking sides into question. Jesus challenged the status quo when he told his disciples not to trust the yeast of the Sadducees or the Pharisees (Matthew 16:5). Neither side had the complete picture. The whole ministry of Jesus was a third way…”

“The very nature of the third-way enterprise will be limiting and incomplete, because we do not often see it attempted. We do not see it fully applied in the divisive issues of our day. And when we do, it is often caricatured as inadequate by the dualistic thinkers who must have it one way or the other.  An invitation to a third way is actually more difficult than choosing a side and then defending it to the death.” (14)

“…this book is a call to find a third way that enables the sides of the debate to bring their best to bear upon finding a new way to move forward into the future.” (62)

“…the old processes have patterned us toward negativity and divisiveness. The way of love does not accept these attitudes and actions as the only options that we have.” (86)

 

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Towards Schism at Ludicrous Speed

spaceballs meme

One of my favorite films of all time is actually a spoof of one of my other favorites.  As you may have guessed from the title, it is Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs, a classic slapstick comedy that pokes fun at the Star Wars saga (later George Lucas would release three “Prequels” that were even more hysterical parodies of his original work).  At one point in the film, the villain Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis), sets out to pursue the hero Lone Star (Bill Pullman).  His second-in-command orders light speed, but Dark Helmet informs him that “light speed is too slow” and orders him to take it to the next level: ludicrous speed.  (Watch the scene here if you wish – minor language warning, though.)

Today a self-appointed College of Cardinals mysterious cabal of conservative pastors and theologians announced in a press release through Good News that schism is already a reality, and we should  be Christian enough to go our separate ways in charity.  In other words, they have just gone from light speed to ludicrous speed.

I was particularly disappointed in their dismissal of a “middle way,” for which my colleagues and others have been advocating.  I cannot resist the temptation to use their own wording against them and suggest:

Talk of an “amicable” separation is comforting and sounds Christ-like.  However, such language only denies the reality that we need to admit.  Neither extreme represents either the main thrust or the majority view of the UMC, most of whose members and clergy live somewhere in between.

But today, mostly I am just sad that it has come to this.  The will of God is not divorce, however polite and “win-win,” but reconciliation.  Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann reflects,

“It grieves the heart of God that the children are estranged from God and from one another. God wills an utterly reconciled community and is at work toward that reality…the task of reconciliation includes the ordering of the family of faith itself. It is ludicrous for the beloved sons and daughters of God to be alienated in their own life. Surely at the center of God’s vision of reconciliation is an image of a united church. That will not come by trade-offs or power plays but by a new radical obedience in which our hoped-for unity calls us to abandon much of our divisive history, even that part of it that we treasure.” (104)

I am on retreat this week at a Benedictine monastery, planning sermons for the upcoming year.  Part of my time has involved worshiping with the community throughout the day.  A couple of nights ago at vespers, we sang Psalm 133:1, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity!”

It was deeply moving, not only to sing that as a United Methodist in a  time of chaos, but to do so among a group of brethren who have taken the Bible seriously enough to pursue the hard work of what Brueggemann calls “radical obedience” towards that vision. God’s ultimate will for his church is not brokenness, however harmless and cordial, but unity.  The extremes – both left and right, mind you – seem intent on running in the opposite direction.  But we will not accomplish God’s will through “trade-offs or power plays.”  You ludicrous speedcan end a hostage standoff by shooting the hostage, but that defeats the purpose.  Likewise, two (or more?) churches that would result from the desired schism may purchase a measure of relief, but it will  come at great cost.

Ludicrous speed it is.  If the extremists in both camps – and yes, I think both are equally responsible – don’t take their hands off the accelerator soon, there is only one place left to go: to plaid.

And while I don’t know what that means, I don’t want to find out.

 

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“To This Annoyance We Are Called”: Why Dialogue is Not Dead in the Church

niceaicon

Orthodox icon of the Council of Nicea, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

This weekend I am heading to New York to participate in a panel discussion as part of the Just Resolution in the Ogletree case.  I am grateful for the invitation and I’ve been doing my best to prepare.  When the panel was announced, many cried foul: “We’ve been talking for 40 years!” “Dialogue is dead!”

Both the left and the right are difficult to please with these conversations.  People associated with Love Prevails (for whom “love” apparently means crashing every gathering of 2 or more Methodists with placards and a video camera) declared that “violence” was done at the recent Connectional Table panel discussion, presumably because one person was bold enough to suggest the Book of Discipline might be correct.  Conservatives often feel set-up in these discussions, which, is claimed, often seem weighted against them – this was certainly true in the CT dialogue, which makes the resulting progressive outrage all the more confusing.  Conservative Methodists have also pre-determined that I am a progressive because I have been known to criticize the right (because, if you aren’t for us, you are against us), and thereby dismissing me before the conversation happens.  Thus, if you listen to those on the fringes, it is easy to believe that dialogue is fruitless.  But there are others who deserve a hearing.

In his dense but valuable little work Church in Crisis, Oliver O’Donovan examines the sexuality controversy in the Anglican Communion.  He notes that a major part of the crisis was a failure to do the hard work of communal discernment:

…the North American churches merely acted, in default of a thorough deliberative process of their own, under the force of strong cultural pressures, the reasons for which they never explained even to themselves, since an ill-conceived doctrine of pluralism persuaded them that thinking was an unnecessary labor. They may have suffered something worse than a bout of racism, if such a thing can be imagined; they may have suffered an implosion of their powers of practical reason, the result of long habits of irresponsibility. And since theology is nothing if not a discipline of common reasoning about God and our life together, unless they recover it, their days of being churches of any kind are numbered.” (53)

Theology is not some academic pursuit that is or should be confined to cloistered students in seminary, but the name given to conversation with and through the Church.  While it is easy to lose patience with what O’Donovan called the  “discipline of common reasoning about God and our life together,” to shun this calling to cease being the Church.  That said,  we should also be honest enough to admit that it can also lead to much consternation, especially in a worldwide communion like Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, or the United Methodism.  Differences in culture, language, theological emphases, political context, and other matters can lead to a great deal of friction in the work of Christian conversation.  But, O’Donovan notes,

“…to this annoyance we are called, as Christ warned and as generations of the faithful have since proved. The question is, what sacrifice of faith we would make if, to avoid this annoyance for ourselves and so spare the church its turmoils, we were to close down on the reading and interpretation of Holy Scripture, if we were to declare that there was nothing to discuss any more.” (81)

Of course dialogue is uncomfortable. It’s always easier to live life surrounded by those who do not challenge us (studies suggest that those around us impact our ability to reason independently).  But God’s people are not called to comfort, we are called to the communion of love and truth that is the Body of Christ.  We are called to struggle with the Spirit, trusting that God will not leave us without His voice.  Afterall, it took us centuries to get to Nicea (pictured above), and thus to define some of our core doctrines; it never has been and never will be as simple as an appeal to Scripture and/or common sense.  We are called to wrestle, and, like Jacob wrestling until morning, we may walk away limping. But we might also discover we’ve received God’s blessing in the process.  O’Donovan concludes his book with an exhortation to keep striving:

“But at the very least we cannot know whether and how much of a famine of the word there is in any disagreement until we submit it to disciplines of patient common inquiry…

There are no guarantees. There never are in the Christian life. But that is not a reason not to try. And seriously trying means being seriously patient. Anyone who thinks that resolutions can be reached in one leap without long mutual exploration, probing, challenge, and clarification has not yet understood the nature of the riddle that the ironic fairy of history has posed for us in our time.” (118-119)

Our calling as Christians is, in part, a calling to be in conversation with one another, in charity and humility.  As Paul said to the Ephesians,

“…lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. ” (Ephesians 4:1b-3)

May God continue to give us patience to live out our calling as the Body of Christ – even when it is annoying –  and may we followers of the Crucified One lay down our arms so that we can endure each other.  And this, not out of some sentimental devotion to harmony, but out of devotion to the triune God, that the Church may be one and the world may believe.

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You are Not an Independent Thinker

BubbleBoy

Living in a bubble is safe, but it can also make us hostile to what is outside. Courtesy WikiSein, the Seinfeld Encyclopedia.

What if we aren’t the independent thinkers that we fancy ourselves to be?

One of the most troubling aspects of debate in today’s church and society is the regionalism that seems so triumphant.  Why is it that certain regions should be associated with, say, gun rights on the one hand, or other areas known for environmental concerns?  Why are churches in some parts of the world very LGBT-friendly and others more traditionalist?  Why is it that I can guess where most of my colleagues stand on things based on what seminary or university they attended?

Let me tell you a story about a series of experiments.  Some were done in the 1950’s and others were repeated more recently.  The basic purpose: to determine how much basic decision-making is influenced by being a part of a group in which one or more parties loudly advocates for the wrong answer.  Susan Cain describes these experiments in her marvelous book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.  The earlier experiments come from a Dr. Asch:

Asch gathered student volunteers into groups and had them take a vision test. He showed them a picture of three lines of varying lengths and asked questions about how the lines compared with one another: which was longer, which one matched the length of a fourth line, and so on. His questions were so simple that 95 percent of students answered every question correctly.

But when Asch planted actors in the groups, and the actors confidently volunteered the same incorrect answer, the number of students who gave all correct answers plunged to 25 percent. That is, a staggering 75 percent of the participants went along with the group’s wrong answer to at least question. (Susan Cain,  Quiet [New York: Crown 2012], 90, emphasis added.)

Notice: a few loud voices drastically altered the ability of people to solve basic, simple problems.  When these experiments were repeated under slightly different conditions more recently, Asch’s conclusions were vindicated by a researcher named Bern and his team:

The results were both disturbing and illuminating. First, they corroborated Asch’s findings. When the volunteers played the game on their own, they gave the wrong answer only 13.8 percent of the time. But when they played with a group whose members gave unanimously wrong answers, they agreed with the group 41 percent of the time. (91, emphasis added.)

Once again, the ability to give correct answers to basic questions is dramatically altered by the presence of a voice or voices giving incorrect answers.  Cain goes on to note that detailed exploration in the latter study revealed that the brain itself was affected by the presence of the group.  She concludes,

Peer pressure, in other words, is not only unpleasant, but can actually change your view of a problem.  these early findings suggest that groups are like mind-altering substances. If the group thinks the answer is A, you’re much more likely to believe that A is correct, too. It’s not that you’re saying consciously, “Hmm, I’m not sure, but they all think the answer’s A, so I’ll go with that.” Nor are you saying, “I want them to like me, so I’ll just pretend that the answer’s A.” No, you are doing something much more unexpected – and dangerous. Most of Berns’s volunteers reported having gone along with the group because “they thought that they had arrived serendipitously at the same correct answer.” They were utterly blind, in other words, to how much their peers had influenced them.” (92, emphasis added.)

We are blind to the effects of peer influence.  In other words, we are not the isolated “thinking things” (as James K.A. Smith would say) that modernity would claim.  All of us are influenced by our communities, friends and social environs, to the point that our brains are actually altered when we are surrounded by others advocating for a particular answer.

If this is true for the basic, simple problems used in the experiments above, how much more could it be true for complex questions like health care, abortion, and churches blessing gay and lesbian marriages?

Right or wrong – quite literally – we are influenced by the people with whom we surround ourselves.  This is why dialogue is vital, because retreating into the echo-chambers of our idealogical allies may make us less capable of coming to different conclusions, even though the people around us could be wrong.  It’s easier, of course, to only engage with people who agree with us.  Life inside the bubble can be quite comfortable.  The womb is a cozy place, but we cannot become adults there.  And besides, there are higher goals to pursue than comfort.

What do these findings mean for how we should seek answers to the tough questions we face? How can we be sure our convictions are not just groupthink?

At the very least, this tells me that a hermeneutic of charity is always needed.  Because it is actually very difficult to determine where my convictions and the convictions of my social location differ, we should be haunted and humbled by this: I may be wrong, even in those those things that I feel most strongly about, and especially if I am surrounded by others with whom I agree. This does not mean we won’t, or shouldn’t, have convictions. But it should impact the way in which we hold those convictions.

What do you think?

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A prayer for those considering schism

by Drew

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Anger is easy.  Prayer is hard, especially for one’s enemies.  And yet, that is the work we are called to do as Christ’s body.

News today broke that is not totally surprising and yet nonetheless sad – pathetic, really.  “Conservative” UMC leaders are openly having discussions about actions ranging from withholding apportionments to outright schism.  While division over matters of sexuality and covenant has been ramping over the years, the group stated, “the present reality, where a growing number of United Methodist bishops are unwilling to enforce the Book of Discipline, is unacceptable and untenable.

Apparently the childhood lesson we all learned has not sunk in to this group: two wrongs don’t make a right.  I am also concerned about the response of some bishops to breaches of the Discipline, and yet I don’t see that as a reason to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

And so I offer this prayer from the United Methodist Hymnal, #564.  Oddly enough, it is a Chinese prayer, no doubt from the pen of a Christian who appreciates the true nature of oppression, and the need for a unified church to witness against all that is dark and evil. I offer this prayer for myself and for others, on all sides and on no side.  May the Spirit of the Christ who prayed that we “might be one” prevail against all self-righteousness and individualism.  May the Holy Spirit drive out the spirit of this age in all its forms.

Help each of us, gracious God,

   to live in such magnanimity and restraint

that the Head of the church may never have cause to say to any one of us,

   “This is my body, broken by you.” Amen.

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Where is the Good News? (Or: Please Stop Giving Money to the Caucuses)

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Emmett Kelly, courtesy Wikimedia commons.

Good News, a conservative evangelical caucus, is not pleased with how things are going in the UMC.  A statement following a recent board meeting, denouncing our current state of affairs as “untenable,” read in part:

“We see the present situation as untenable. We are aware of conversations taking place among leading pastors and other groups around the country to examine what options are available for those of us who are biblical Christians and who have agreed to live by The Book of Discipline.  Those options include sweeping reform of the church or the creation of a different kind of future.  If we are one church, we cannot act as if we are two.  If in reality we are two churches, it may not be wise to pretend any longer that we are one.  Many are discussing the wisdom of churches continuing to fund a denomination that is unwilling to live by its policies and whose chief officers do not enforce its beliefs.  Some have already curtailed their financial support in protest.  Concrete and dramatic actions are likely to come out of those conversations in the next few months.”

Notice the vague language: “We are aware of conversations”; “leading pastors”; “some” and “many,” etc.  This got me thinking about how complaints and controversial matters are handled on church boards.  One of the rules that any healthy church holds among its decision-making bodies is something like “speak for self, use only ‘I’ statements.”  This is because often times people will attempt to manipulate a process of discernment by implying that untold numbers of persons have a problem with thus-and-such.  You’ve probably heard of conversations like this.  “Pastor, a bunch people are really upset about [x].”  Or, “I’ve been talking to a lot of people, and they are thinking about leaving unless you do something.”  Oftentimes, the unnamed masses are really just one or two ornery troublemakers who are attempting to augment their influence by claiming others as anonymous co-conspirators.

I would hope that Good News, composed as it is of many who serve in various leadership capacities in local churches, would be astute and honest enough to avoid this kind of power play.  These kinds of veiled threats are, on the whole,  unbecoming of the body of Christ.  What is true at the local church level is equally, if not more so, true at the level of denominational advocacy.

A particularly troubling tactic is the threat of withholding funds unless the one gets their way.  An all-too-common ploy, this is often reserved by power brokers in a local church to use when all else has failed.  Again, what is true of the parish is true of a caucus; hostage-taking should be beneath an organization dedicated to the renewal of the church.  It is, pure and simple, a manipulative tool unworthy of Christians in covenant together.  Apportionments are not dues paid when all is well, but the shared burden that makes shared ministry possible.  As I would say to someone in my church, you aren’t withholding from the local church, you are withholding from the God to whom you have promised a portion.

One last request: can we stop resorting to the self-righteous rhetoric that declares some Christians “biblical” and others (by default) “un-biblical?”  Perceiving oneself as following Scripture on a particular ethical question probably doesn’t mean that one follows every jot and tittle of Scripture at all times.  In that sense, none of us are “biblical.”  This is the conservative equivalent of the Christian left accusing anyone who questions their agenda “homophobic.”  Both are often crass and self-serving adjectives that say nothing helpful in furthering a conversation.

Perhaps the time has come for the people called United Methodists to withhold their funds from these caucus groups, which seem to be more and more intent on running headlong toward a cliff.  They don’t seem to be getting us anywhere: they aren’t sharing good news, they aren’t interested in reconciling, they aren’t confessing anything interesting, they only want love to prevail through bullying and intimidation, and rather than “religion and democracy” they are promoting idolatry and ideology.

Mind you, this is just a humble proposal.  I’m not aware of any others expressing a similar desire. So I won’t promise you that incalculable legions have my back on this.

I’m just speaking for myself.

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Ignatius of Antioch on Unity in the Church

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Icon of St. Ignatius, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

In a letter to the church at Philadelphia (the ancient one, not Rocky’s city), Bishop Ignatius exhorts the church to unity under Christ as he prepares for his impending martyrdom.  Christ, he says, “is our eternal and enduring joy” particularly when the church is “in unity with the bishop, the presbyters, and the deacons.”  He sounds downright Pauline when commanding them to run from division:

“Wherefore, as children of light and truth, flee from division and wicked doctrines; but where the shepherd is, there do ye as sheep follow. For there are many wolves that appear worthy of credit, who, by means of a pernicious pleasure, carry captives those who are running towards God; but in your unity they shall have no place.”

Ignatius suggests serious consequences for schism, which, while quite harsh to Protestant ears, reflects a view of church discipline that is sorely lacking in most communions today:

“For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. And as many as shall, in the exercise of repentance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ. Do not err, my brethren. If any man follows him that makes a schism in the Church, he shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”

Talking schism is all the rage now in the United Methodist Church.  Jack Jackson of Claremont argued breaking up was “hard, but the right thing” for the denomination last year.  As if whispers and worries over a split were not bad enough, recently a Facebook group was formed named Clergy For a New Methodist Denomination (though, happily, it hasn’t picked up much steam).  The newly formed Wesleyan Covenant Network is not proposed as a new denomination, though it sounds (in its title and its core values) very much like the new ECO Presbyterian denomination that has been stealing prominent churches – like John Ortberg’s Menlo Park – from the PCUSA.  I could easily see something happening with the Wesleyan Covenant Network that has happened with the Fellowship of Presbyterians and ECO: what begins as a network of likeminded folks within a denomination very quickly gives way to schism.

Ignatius is a strong tonic against such temptations, which treat the unity of the church as a small matter.  How telling it is that one of the original Apostolic Fathers, possibly a disciple of John himself, writes with such conviction in the generation after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension? This is not some medieval Catholic reactionary speaking, but one of our earliest witnesses to the faith.  We could learn much from his teaching that the unity of the Church is both the will of God and to the benefit of the gospel’s proclamation, as he also indicated in a letter to the Magnesians:

“As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the the apostles, so neither do ye anything without the bishop and presbyters. Neither endeavor that anything appear reasonable and proper to yourselves apart; but being come together into the same place, let there be one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and joy undefiled. There is one Jesus Christ, than whom nothing is more excellent.”

In the icon above, Ignatius is depicted at his martyrdom, torn apart by lions.  There are many forces that seek to tear the UMC apart, from different directions.  My prayer is that we can avoid the fate of other Mainline denominations and find a way to live together.  What God has joined together, let us not tear asunder.  As Jesus said, “May they be one.”

(Quotes courtesy of the Church Fathers Lenten Reading Plan).

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