Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Power and Control Win the Day... Again... #ForNow


We [the United Methodist Church, as a global denomination] could have embraced “bothandia” – a favorite term of mine - allowing for us to stay together in unity, with having to demand uniformity.

But apparently, we can’t live by John Wesley’s (and before him, Augustine’s) “in essentials…” quote.

 I think it’s because we don’t understand the differences between “essentials” and “non-essentials.”  In a way I hope that’s why, but only because we could at least blame ignorance rather than a willful choice to ignore this basic tenant of what it means to be Wesleyan.

So what’s essential, Church? 

JESUS is essential.  Salvation is essential.  The resurrection is essential.  Holy Spirit is essential.  Transformation is essential.  Scripture is essential (this does not mean our interpretations of Scripture, but the embracing of Scripture as our sacred texts).  The creeds are essential.  And for the UMC and other Wesleyan theological bodies, a Wesleyan understanding of grace and free will are essential (otherwise, why be Wesleyan at all?). 

In essence, there are your essentials.  You can add to the list if you want.  Quibble if you must.  I’m not trying to write exhaustively of every detail.  But in broad terms (which is the point of essentials - not to be bogged down in details, which are inherently not essential), yes: 

Jesus, salvation, resurrection, Holy Spirit, transformation, Scripture, Creeds, Wesleyan grace and free will.  These are the things that are our essentials – by our I mean UMC, Nazarenes, and all the other brands of Wesleyan Protestants (if we were to exclude Wesleyan grace and free will, we could say the rest is true for the vast majority of the other brands of Christianity, everywhere!).

And yet… power and control won the day.  Again.  #ForNow

That’s what it looks like, anyway.  But maybe… if we try to extend grace however and wherever possible (see: essentials), it isn’t so much power and control that won the day, but fundamentalism and anti-intellectualism that won the day. 

Fundamentalism is a disease that elevates non-essentials to the level of essentials, then seeks to force those who have differing views of the non-essentials to conform to the fundamentalist views of  these non-essentials, or risk ostracization – or, very often, even worse outcomes.

Fundamentalism takes many shapes and forms in all areas of society – government, culture, religion, business, families, relationships, and more.

In the Church, fundamentalism rears its ugly head, as well.  Its breeding grounds are the cesspools of anti-intellectualism, anti-education, and willful lack of information and understanding.  In essence, people who choose not to know better (or more charitably – here come those essentials again – just ignorantly don’t know better) force their views onto others – both those who also don’t know better as well as those who do know better.

Yes, there are those who allow their intellect, education, understanding, and academic prowess to go their heads, believing themselves to be superior to others, looking down their noses disrespectfully at those who “just don’t understand things” the way they do.  And yes, we need to be wary of people who behave in that way, because they can and sometimes do bring about their own brand of fundamentalism that is just as dangerous, dispiriting, and harmful as any other brand. 

But that is not what I am talking about here; rather, it is those who carry themselves the same way, but from the opposite end of the spectrum – those who take pride in their lack of education, who openly disdain those who have worked hard to come to a place of greater knowledge and academic discipline in their lives, believing themselves to be superior to others, looking down their noses disrespectfully at those who “think they understand things” but actually do not understand them as well as they do.   I’m not talking about people who have no choice in the matter and don’t have access to proper education among many other things, those squarely in the center of the least of the least of these.  I’m talking about those who make a willful choice in this matter.

So it’s just the same stuff from opposite ends of the spectrum.  One is diarrhea, and one is puke, but they both stink, make a mess of things, and are outward signs of sickness in the body.

And that is what fundamentalism – or to use what ought to be considered a companion term, militantism -  is, in all its forms, in every area of society and human experience:  A wretched sickness that needs to be treated and cured – or at the very least, held in check and then pushed back - for the health and well-being of the world.

But… this too could easily become a fundamentalist, demanding, militant rally cry.  Yes, we can attempt (and historically, so often have) to eradicate one form of fundamentalism, utilizing a new form of the same.  And that kind of hypocrisy sets us up for a lose-lose, either/or situation.  What we need are win-win, both/and solutions. 

We should bear in mind that every part of human experience does have real, actual “essentials.”  Sometimes both/and solutions do mean an amicable parting because we realize that we have come to a place where it really isn’t non-essentials we disagree on, but actual, real, bona fide essentials. 

There are moments in which we reach the realization that because we cannot have unity in essentials, we must go our separate ways; but doing so lovingly, with charity, and with respect.  It is tempting to say that it is sad when this happens.  And emotionally, particularly if it means splitting apart a long term coalition or relationship, I suppose it is, because of the difficulty involved.  But in truth, it is not sad, because it is actually best for the long-term health of the relationship – or government, coalition, religion, culture, etc. 

If for example, one reaches the conclusion that they believe it is essential to understand, believe, and live by a creed that there are many gods, and not one – and if they previously had united together with others who believed in one God - it isn’t sad that they can’t keep their unity in essentials because their essentials now differ.  Again, there may be – almost certainly will be - emotional sadness in the parting, from one or both parties.  But it isn’t sad for two people – or groups – to realize they don’t believe in and practice the same sets of essentials, and must amicably part.

The sadness comes, in this view, when the parting is not amicable, when the parties do not willingly choose to agree to disagree, and do not continue to have love, charity, and respect for one another. 

Remember Wesley:  “In non-essentials, liberty… in essentials, unity… in all things, charity.” 
We are to love and respect all people, “in all things”, no matter how much we disagree (and…perhaps the most difficult part of all… no matter how much the ‘other’ does or does not reciprocate that love and respect!), no matter how different our essentials are, no matter how incongruent our non-essentials appear. 

It is when we don’t love and respect all people that the real sadness and heartbreak sets in… and when the doors are opened wide for fundamentalism to swoop in and attempt to fill the gaping hole (which it never has, never can, and never will) that is left by our lack of love and respect for all. 

Fundamentalism gets everything wrong because it always begins with enforcing the non-essentials – the furthest possible position we can take from loving and respecting all people.
Love, charity, respect:  These come first.  They can, should (and sometimes do!) unite us all.

Then, essentials.  These will divide us – but only insofar as these limited sets of ideas, beliefs, and understandings necessarily do so (an atheist and a God-worshipper have different sets of essentials, as do a socialist and a capitalist, or a Wesleyan and a Calvinist, etc…), but they should never divide us in love.  Love, charity, and respect for all can, and should, allow us to “agree to disagree”; we can still be friends, even if we don’t live our lives by the exact same big-picture principles.

Finally, non-essentials:  These could divide us, and sadly, they often do.  Thus, the breeding ground for fundamentalism.  If we first love and respect all, and then agree on essentials, there is no reason to allow non-essentials to divide us. 

Rather, our love and respect, and agreement on essentials, can and should naturally lead to a liberty among us to practice and think and believe freely in the vast majority of our human experiences and understandings.  This is the opposite of fundamentalism:  Free thought, free belief, free practice.
We had an opportunity to embrace free thought, free belief, free practice.  To practice what Wesley preached, “in non-essentials, liberty.”

Instead, we have chosen a path familiar to fundamentalism:  Elevating non-essentials to the status of essentials, and potentially dividing with each other because of them – and in fact, at least on the surface, that would appear to be not only a goal but the intention of those who pushed this divisive so-called “Traditional” plan through the special session of General Conference. 

We could have embraced the way of “bothandia” with the “One Church” plan (or eve some of the others), which would have allowed everyone to think, believe, and practice in accordance with their conscience as individuals and as churches.  For now, at least – we did not.

My hope is that there is yet a way forward by being united in essentials and leaving non-essentials to the liberty of each person’s or group’s conscience.

But my prayer is that, at the very least, we can be loving, charitable, and respectful in all things.  Because that is the place where we can, and should – and dare I say it, must, always, begin.