general conference

Double Victory in an Age of Winners and Losers

You may have read the following lines from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.s' sermon delivered to the Detroit Council of Churches in 1961:

"I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: ”We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, but we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory."
The double victory of the Portland Convention Center symbolized in the architecture.

The double victory of the Portland Convention Center symbolized in the architecture.

While MLK was speaking to the cause of racial integration, his instructions of the power of non-violence resistance transcend any one issue. His desire for a double victory is noting less than transformation of the head and heart. It is a transformation of all parties involved and it is the path toward the Kingdom of God.

At the General Conference of the UMC in Portland, I saw the transformative power of the double victory give way to the idolatry of the single victory.

To help me I turn to former President Bill Clinton. 

In 2003, Bill Clinton said, “You know the difference in Democrats and Republicans? In every presidential election, Democrats want to fall in love. Republicans just fall in line.”

This now conventional wisdom is short hand for the phenomenon in American presidential politics that Republicans tend to choose candidates that are "next in line" and Democrats choose candidates that move their heart.* This dichotomy that President Clinton points out is a bit helpful to see that even in American presidential politics the double victory is difficult to come by and so it is abandoned for the sake of a single victory. We are in an age of winners and losers and the time it takes for a double victory leaves one side vulnerable to loosing.

At the General Conference of the UMC in Portland, the abandoning the double victory was on full display. One side was busy organizing protests in order to move hearts, while the other side was busy organizing hands to move votes. And we, as a denomination, are weaker all the more for it.

It is imperative that we as the church work for the double victory, otherwise decisions made will be only feeding the narrative that there are winners and losers. The body of Christ is animated when the heart and hands work together. To echo a great mystic of our tradition, the heart cannot say to the hand, "I have no need for you" and the hand cannot say to the heart, "You are of no use to me." 

The reason the General Conference is broken is not because of the bureaucratic nature of the system. It is rooted in the values of UMC members. We do not value the transformative power of the double victory as much as we value the shallow single victory. 

The single victory is dangerous because it means I get what I want while not having to consider the other side. The single victory leads to a decline of compassion. This is why I hope that we as a denomination do not split: if we split the double victory would be lost.

*I understand that the 2016 Presidential election cycle challenges this wisdom in that Republicans are choosing someone they are falling in love with (Trump) while the Democrats are choosing the next in line (Hillary Clinton).

Language Monopoly

This is not unique to the UMC, however the church has a number of monopolies on language. I am not saying that the UMC has a monopoly on, say, language about grace or love. I am saying that within the UMC there are groups that have a monopoly on language such that it will cost an outsider something if you use language held by a monopoly.

There are some words that are used by the right and some words that are used by the left and if you are on the right and you use words held by the left monopoly then it will cost you something. And vise versa, leftists use the right's language with an awareness of the cost. Monopolies are effective in using their language to be sure, but what makes them each a monopoly is how the words are loaded. You know you are dabbling in the language held by a monopoly when you want to use it but then have to say what you are not saying. For instance, Progressives shy away from talking about Satan. So when a progressive is desires to use that word, there is often an apology that goes with it, "Satan is alive in the world. And when I say Satan I don't mean a personified being with horns or demons he controls. I mean..." 

For a silly example, at General conference there was a vote to be taken, it was not an important vote (from what I can recall from my notes it was a procedural vote). When these votes came up for action, it was allowed by the rules to use raise placards. Delegates were each given three placards, one red, one green one yellow. These colors were used in previous conferences to signal different action, however the 2016 conference had electronic devices to handle that action. So rather than waiving a yellow placard, you just punched into a computer tablet at the table your ID number and "point of order". The three colored placards were not needed, however this was the tradition and this is what tables had for this vote.

Except one table. 

One table did not have green cards and prior to the vote a gentleman ran to a microphone and signaled to the presiding bishop for attention. When called upon, the man stated that his table did not have green placards for this procedural vote. The Bishop stated that when she calls for a vote using the placards, and color will do. You could even use white paper if you needed to. The man sat down and the Bishop stated that the vote was about to take place and, just to be clear she said to get a placard of any color. To hammer the point across she said, "we will have a rainbow vote."

There was an audible gasp from the observing area where I was seated at the time. 

You may be thinking what was the gasp about? It was because a monopolized word was invoked without the apology/clarification. Calling anything "rainbow" is colored with a particular hue. While the bishop was clarifying the color of the placard does not matter only that you have one to vote, the word "rainbow" fired off all sorts of associations. 

Rev. Mary Spradlin, Rev. Rob Renfro and me. Three people, three different theological perspectives.

Rev. Mary Spradlin, Rev. Rob Renfro and me. Three people, three different theological perspectives.

This is a benign example, however this is not the only example. At one of the more dire moments of the Conference there was an accusation made on the floor that a bishop was signaling to others how to vote by "discreetly" holding up one or two fingers while holding the microphone. This accusation was not founded on anything other than in subcommittee there were people who would accused of signaling delegates how to vote with the same signals. I don't know and heavily doubt if these accusations have any merit to them, but it does serve as an example that even non-verbals can be monopolized by a camp and even if used without intent it can be costly. In this case the left monopolized hand gestures to mean only "this is how you vote." It could not mean anything else.

The General Conference had about a dozen languages being translated in real time. While the Church literally does not speak the same language the Church also metaphorically does not speak the same language. 

Within their monopoly, conservatives have words like: Orthodoxy, Biblical, authority, moral, traditional, schism, under attack, liberty, Good News, the faithful, etc. Liberals have the monopoly on words like: LGBTQ, prophetic, justice, protest, rainbow, love your neighbor, love prevails, reconciling, Orthopraxy, etc. 

The reason this matters is that if we desire to be a church that wants to better understand our neighbor and world, if we want to be a church that is interested to heal where there is division then I believe one of the first things we can do is adopt one another's language in order to break up the language monopolies. Conservatives need to use more unity and reconciliation language, Progressives need to use more victory and salvation language. 

Monopolies are unhealthy for an economy and for the people.

They can kill a church.

Sit, Stay, Go - A Dilemma in Table Manners

The UMC has an open table when it comes to Communion. We take the theological stand that the communion table is one that belongs to Christ and putting restrictions on who can and cannot feast with Christ at table is not the place of the church. We understand that Jesus did not kick people out of the room when the Eucharist ("Last Supper") was instituted. We hold fast to the promise that when we come to the table we may very well be changed and that, in part, is the power of being at the table with God and others. 

Sitting, Staying and Going with Rev. Dr. Charles Boayue Jr. ( hear my interview with him here )

Sitting, Staying and Going with Rev. Dr. Charles Boayue Jr. (hear my interview with him here)

We understand that the communion table is a place where people are invited to sit, stay at, AND go from. We trust, have faith and place some hope in the repetition of sit, stay AND go. It may take time, much longer than we may even want to admit, but we continue the practice of sit, stay AND go. 

Within the church there are people who feel sit, stay AND go is not applicable for other tables. Rather, the position seems to be taken (on both left and right) that we need to sit, stay OR go from tables. Here are a couple of examples:

Some conservatives desire that the UMC should no longer sit and stay but rather go from the table of Religious Coalition For Reproductive Choice (RCRC). The UMC is a founding member of the RCRC and while the RCRC may not line up 100% with the UMC on a very difficult topic it is also the case that the members of the UMC are not all aligned with the official stance of the church on these same matters. The power of sit, stay and go was abandoned in favor of forcing a choice. The UMC chose to go. So the UMC is no longer going to the RCRC table.

Some progressives desire that the UMC should divest (an economic term meaning to "leave") from companies dealing in fossil fuels. There were votes that were taken but the UMC vote to stay at the table of companies dealing in such industry. Some of the rational that I heard was that these same companies are the ones leading the way on renewable energy source and that being a shareholder gives us vote and voice to influence these companies. The UMC chose to stay at this table.  

Choosing to only "go" from tables because the table does not align with our current values or we are not influencing the table any longer is missing a larger point. Table fellowship does not come with the expectation to change the minds of others at table but to be open to the reality that we may be the ones who are changed. It took Jesus courage to sit, stay AND go from the table with Judas and Peter. It takes courage to sit at, stay with AND go from a table that you feel like you cannot change. It takes courage to be continue the sit, stay AND go pattern because that cycle may influence/change you.

The courageous sit, stay AND go.

The proud sit, stay OR go.

My concern is that my denomination is divorcing our table theology from our table practice.

A first breath after the General Conference dust storm

Over the next several posts I would like to share some General Conference reflections as now the dust is settling. These posts will not so much look at the bits of legislation that did or did not pass. These posts will use specific conference actions as examples for a larger point. These posts are designed for those who did not attend, don't care or are tired of reading what did/did not happen, or those who are looking for the larger Spirit of the UMC as lived out at the General Conference. These are only my thoughts and do not necessarily reflect the thoughts of the Central Texas Conference or her delegation or Bishop. 

In order to better get a sense of where these posts are headed here are the topic headings:

  • Language Monopoly
  • Sit, Stay, Go - A Dilemma in Table Manners
  • Double Victory in an Age of Winners and Losers

And so while I am still processing all that happened in the ten days and the fall out of General Conference there is still ministry to be done. Until these forthcoming GC posts arrive. I invite you to hear/watch (beginning at the 30 minute mark) this sermon called "Why did Ananias and Sapphira really die?" It is the story in Acts when two people dropped dead after it was discovered they held back money from the Church. It is an odd story, however, it relates to General Conference and the state of the UMC. Peace.