Disgust, Anger and Clothed In Pseudo-Righteousness

Recently, Abilene Christian University's Dr. Richard Beck spoke at the church where I serve as co-senior pastor and he said something about disgust and anger that is relevant to the current situation within the UMC.

First, when we experience disgust our reaction is to pull away. We see this in our daily lives to be sure, but we also see this in the stories of Jesus. When there was a person considered disgusting, such as a leaper or a bleeding woman, the crowd stepped or pushed away the one thought of as disgusting. This is natural and helpful as disgust is a safeguard toward contracting sickness. We tend to stay away from sick people and even disgusting places (hospitals, garbage, sewers, etc.)

Second, when we experience anger our reaction is to move toward. When we are angered by someone driving on the road we will often drive quickly pass them or even tailgate them. Angry people are more likely to strike another person or at least yell at them so that our voice even moves toward the other person. Anger drives us to protest and act in ways that can be healthy, such as the theological notion of righteous anger.

Within the UMC there are two different postures toward the issues of LGBTQ inclusion and I propose if it is helpful to think not in terms of conservative/liberal but the animating emotions of disgust/anger.

Photo by  Andre Hunter  on  Unsplash

Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

There is a direct and an indirect expression of disgust happening in the UMC. The direct expression are those who personally want to pull away or leave the denomination. This position cannot abide in a denomination that they are disgusted by. The indirect expression of disgust is when we make a way for others to leave. We are not the ones who are leaving, but when we make a direct way for people to leave then we still have our disgust action met – there is a separation.

The other animating action is that of anger. These are the ones who are fighting and protesting for their position. These individuals are on the left and right but the action is the same – to drive toward the other in an attempt to subdue, convince, and/or conquer the other. There is also a direct and indirect form of the anger expression. Those who are directly protesting and those who are using the rules of the system to ensure their position is safeguarded and even bolstered. Either way, there is a direct and active engagement with the Church that is driven by anger.

The reality is those experiencing disgust or anger within the UMC have much to teach us and still much to learn.

Disgust teaches us that boundaries are important and that violations of those boundaries for many people trigger disgust. This means that when boundaries are violated or moved then there are many who have a core reaction similar to drinking their own spit. While the spit is in their mouths it is easy to swallow, however when asked to spit into a cup then drink it, disgust sets in. The boundary of where spit resides was moved and thus becomes disgusting – even if the spit is only seconds out of the mouth. Boundaries help keep people safe and disgust alerts us to a boundary violation and asks us to pay attention to this violation, because it may be harmful.

Anger teaches us that it is important to engage with rather than back down from those injustices in the world. And like disgust, anger is triggered when there is a violation. Anger alerts us to these violations and asks us to pay attention to the violation because there may be harm happening.

For as much as those disgusted or angry have to teach us, they also have much to learn. Specifically the limits of disgust and anger. As a Christian, I believe that Jesus shows us where those limits are and also shows us that if disgust and anger move us beyond these limits then we need to abandon disgust and anger all together.

When Jesus is confronted with people considered disgusting of his time, Jesus understands. Perhaps Jesus even experienced a bit of disgust when he encountered a woman whom he would not move toward, but in fact insinuated she was a dog. When the woman responded that even dogs eat from the scraps of the master’s table, Jesus realized that his disgust too him too far – he called a woman a dog! At that point he abandoned his sense of disgust and boundary keeping and healed the woman’s daughter (Matthew 15:21-28).

When Jesus experiences anger he is quick to realize the damage anger can cause. For instance, as soon as Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me Satan!” the very next line reads, “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:22-24). Notice the twist here, Jesus does not banish Peter but invites him to get behind, one might say follow, him. In this moment of anger, even Jesus invited the Satan to follow him. Meaning that even when angry, Jesus invites the one he is angry with to stay in the relationship. If you are choosing to remain in relationship with someone then anger has to give way to love.

The United Methodist Church has a conversation on her hands about how to include ministry with LGBTQ persons. Some are disgusted and others are angry at this discussion. Both disgust and anger are helpful – until they are not. We have reached a point where disgust and anger are no longer helpful.

Any plan that is brought forth that does not hold us together in unified relationship reflects not the unity of the body of Christ but the emotional needs to resolve our own disgust and/or anger.

As Jesus said, you will be known by your love for one another. Or perhaps when Paul said that we are one in the Body of Christ. Or perhaps Revelation’s image of the peaceable kingdom where the lion and lamb are together. The Biblical witness is continually calling humanity to set anger and disgust aside for the sake of being in loving relationship. May my beloved UMC confront the disgust and anger in our lives, repent of the temptation of the pseudo-righteousness on full display that is only there to mask addiction we have to disgust and anger. Come Lord Jesus!

Ecclesiastical Chemotherapy?

Not long ago Mark Cuban (the owner of the Dallas Mavericks) said that he feels President Trump is Political Chemotherapy. The point he was making is that regardless of how you feel about Trump, everyone in the American political system is having to examine what it is we want to be normative and what are values are and what it means to be a public servant today. This is for some, a painful process and for others a sense that this is the last chance to "fix" the sick system. It is an interesting metaphor regardless of how one feels about President Trump. 

The UMC faces among her more difficult future in the months ahead. The ruling of the Judicial Council on Bishop Oliveto, the Commission on the Way Forward, the called session of the General Conference, local churches voting to leave the denomination and the evolving of renewal/schismatic groups - just to name few of the challenges. While the future is not something that I would have desired for my denomination and I have no doubts that there will be a great discomfort and pain, but perhaps the UMC is not dying but going through chemotherapy?

Part of the intensity of chemotherapy is that it does not discriminate - even healthy cells are affected. All of this facing the UMC, of course there will be a number of good people who will leave the denomination, and perhaps the Universal Church. There will be indiscriminate pain and hurt across the UMC. So what do we do? 

I submit that we look to how we would minister to those going though chemotherapy. Sit. Pray. Be still. Cry. Find the moments of joy where we can. Remind one another we are not alone. Try not to get too bogged down in the days ahead, but be present right now. 

Note: It is not my intent to downplay the intensity of cancer, and I only offer this as a metaphor and like all metaphors it breaks when stretched passed its usefulness. I have witnessed the effects and in no way mean to imply that the struggles of the UMC are of the same level of pain and fear that come with medical chemotherapy.

Hold Accountable ≠ Hold Hostage

"Hold people accountable!" is a rally cry when we recognize injustice done by another person or institution. We talk about holding politicians accountable to their actions by how we vote. We hold children accountable for their actions when they make a mistake. The criminal justice system talks about holding people accountable for their infractions. Holding another accountable is even present in the Church.

God holds the people accountable for their actions when the covenant is broken. Church leaders and church members hold one another accountable in doing the work of God. Pastors are held accountable to their Bishops and Bishops are held accountable to other Bishops. 

Ideally holding people accountable is a wonderful way to move into deeper relationship and health. However, too often we misunderstand what it means to hold someone accountable and instead hold them hostage. 

Holding someone accountable means at least three things: 

  1. Non-threatening - In a hostage situation, threats are used in order to force the other party to participate in an action. Force by way of violence, threats, or expulsion are used in order to "get" the other person to act. Holding someone accountable means, at the very least, threats of violence (in all its forms) are not present. For example: If you do not like the way your pastor preaches and then threaten to withhold your donation until they change, you are holding your pastor hostage. However, if you do not like the way your pastor preaches and desire to hold them accountable for their action, see Jesus' teaching in Matthew 18.
  2. Preservation of agency - In a hostage situation, the hostage does not have choice (agency) in the matter. The hostage taker may give false choices. They may say, "You can walk out that door if you want to! It is your choice!" but the hostage knows walking out the door means getting shot. Holding someone accountable means that the parties involved work to preserve one another's agency. If false choices are presented or if there is a clear power difference (the other has a gun and will shoot you if you leave), then you have a hostage situation not an accountable situation.
  3. Trust maintained at all cost - Trust is the fuel to the engine of accountability. If there is no sense of trust between the parties, then every action will be met with suspicion. Part of the reason hostages are kept in sight or locked up is that the hostage taker does not trust the captives to remain. In Acts the jail is broken as the result of an earthquake but the prisoners chose to remain. They were in prison because the Romans did not trust them. When it was clear that Paul and his partner trusted God and remained in the newly opened cell, the guard was converted. Acts 16:25-35.

The UMC faces a situation where there is an expressed desire to hold someone accountable: Traditionalists want to hold local pastors accountable for breaking the Book of Discipline. My own jurisdiction wants to hold another jurisdiction accountable for the election of Bishop Oliveto. Progressives want to hold the church accountable to their understanding of the Kingdom of God. American churches want to hold Central Conferences accountable to pay apportionments; Central Conferences want to hold American churches accountable to their understanding of the Kingdom of God. It seems everyone wants to hold the Bishops accountable for a slew of reasons! The most recent group desiring to hold someone in the denomination accountable is the WCA's desire to hold those who violate church laws accountable for understood disobedience. 

We all invoke the accountability language because it is Biblical and mature. Frankly, humans are better at covenant-breaking then covenant-keeping (see the entire Bible for endless examples).

God holds us accountable, but God does not hold us hostage. In a twist of irony, the leading atonement theory for a millennia was rooted on the idea that God was willing to be taken hostage by the devil in order to trick the devil.

It is the evil one who takes hostages; God never has. 

Be alert to the ways you are being held hostage. Be vigilant to the ways the Church is being held hostage. Be joyful that God is not interested in holding us hostage.

The WCA's LMP Problem

The Wesleyan Covenant Association is a group of United Methodist clergy and laity. For anyone who has heard of the WCA but is not aware of what it is, the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) stated purpose open with the following statement:

"The Wesleyan Covenant Association (“WCA”) is an association of congregations, clergy persons, and laity who desire to cooperate in the mission of the WCA to promote the ministry of the gospel from a Wesleyan theological perspective within The United Methodist Church and kindred bodies."

Like all organizations, the WCA uses particular words to define what it is. Some of the words that are most commonly used in the material that I come across are "Wesleyan", "orthodox", "evangelical", and "covenant keeping". Like any organization who defines itself, there are critics who say the WCA is claiming sole ownership of what it means to be, say, "Wesleyan" or "orthodox." I am thankful for the WCA giving members of the UMC to consider again what it means to be "evangelical" and/or "covenant keeping." Just as the no one Church has the exclusive rights to claim "Christian" so to the WCA does not have exclusive rights to a number of other defining qualities of the UMC.

In all the discerning work on what it means to be Methodist, there is one descriptor the WCA uses that gives me the most concern and frankly is, from my standpoint, the cause of a great amount of tension in our world.

The WCA has a "like-minded people" (LMP) problem.

Is surrounding ourselves with LMP a form of egocentrism? 

Is surrounding ourselves with LMP a form of egocentrism? 

In the WCA "statements" page the LMP problem shows up a half dozen times. In a recent video put out by the WCA, Rev. Madeline Henners lets the listener know:

“Of course everyone is welcome to attend the Wesleyan Covenant Association Conference, however I do want to make two specific invitations. The first is to pastors and congregations of small to medium-sized churches. Depending on which conference you’re located in, sometimes you may feel like your voice is not heard or even dismissed. We want you to know that your voice matters to the Wesleyan Covenant Association. I’d also like to personally invite any young clergy who are in the process of being ordained or recently ordained. We want you to feel connected and supported to like-minded brothers and sisters, who not only are seeking to restore integrity to our covenant, but are seeking to belong to a vital Wesleyan movement.”

It seems that LMP is a feature and not a bug in the WCA system. I believe this to be a problem.

If the current state of U.S. politics teaches us, it is that we all are falling short and missing the mark (AKA: Sin) when we surround ourselves with only agreement. Confirmation bias is part of the human condition. However, the Church is the place that understands that the Grace of God works in and through us to open us up. The Grace of God reminds us that God loves all people -- even if they are not like-minded. 

I am working to repent of the LMP in my own life. I have subscribed to a web browser extension (Escape Your Bubble) which puts news stories from "the other side" directly into my Facebook feed. I have begun to access most of my news from allsides.com - "Unlike regular news services, AllSides exposes bias and provides multiple angles on the same story so you can quickly get the full picture, not just one slant." Finally, I have been intentional on listening with curiosity to people in my congregation that have a completely different values than I do. 

Lent is the season to repent. It is the season to embrace, once again, a humble posture to the reality that we see through a mirror only dimly. It is the season to die to self and be reborn (not just a change of heart but a completely new heart).

Can lent 2017 be the time we cure our LMP problem?