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.”
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.