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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Saving Bullies

A while back I reached out to the creators of a website called, "Save the UMC." The website was started following the passage of the comprehensive health care bill when Speaker Nancy Pelosi thanked the United Methodist Church for it's support. If you recall, tea party activists were in a full-scale uproar over the federal government providing health care for people. The focus of their rage was largely on the expense, though the health care proposal could have been paid for multiple times by the costs of the two invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet, I don't remember any tea party outrage at all when those countries were invaded.

I told the Save the UMC creators who I am - that I am a two-time alum of Asbury Seminary and so I have a background well rooted in evangelicalism. I shared that I strongly believe that when focused on deepening and expanding God's Kingdom reality in the world, liberals and conservatives and everyone in between should find much room to work alongside each other. I work with some conservative groups in Washington DC on a few issues so I know it can be done. My outreach to them was sincere and I told them I would be willing to travel anywhere at anytime to sit down and talk about what saving the UMC meant and how we could partner, more importantly, to serve the ends of God's Kingdom. I genuinely was excited about the prospects.

Their response? No, not interested.

Even now, I am still flabbergasted by their refusal to meet with me. How could a group proclaim so loudly about the need to save the UMC, but when faced with the opportunity to actually build bridges that might result in that very thing, then say no? Far more important than saving an institution, how could a group profess to be focused on the higher calling of seeking first the Kingdom of God refuse the opportunity of at least sharing with and listening to another who professes to be after that very same end?

It reminds me in many ways of the duplicity of the so-called tea party movement that unfortunately has a stranglehold on politics today. While we all remember the screaming tea partyers angrily confronting members of Congress last summer about health care, I do not seem to recall the same screaming matches between these same tea partyers and their members of Congress when George Bush and the Republican Congress led us into trillion dollar invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. So much for outrage at government waste as the money for government contractors has provided for the greatest feeding trough and corporate welfare for corporations like Halliburton Boeing in recent memory. I wish some of the tea partyers would scream at members of Congress about that, but no, not a peep.

Further, if tea partyers truly are concerned about big government intrusion into private lives, then why hasn't the so-called tea party movement been protesting the anti-immigrant legislation ravaging states like Arizona, Alabama, South Carolina, and Georgia where people are being stopped at random and forced to prove their citizenship; where faith communities will be prevented from many of their ministries among immigrant communities because they won't be allowed to transport immigrants in their own vehicles? Isn't that government intrusion at its worst? No outrage from the tea partyers though, not a peep.

The hypocrisy for both the so-called tea party movement and Save the UMC is astonishing. Could it be that both tea partyers and Save the UMC are not interested in the principles they so loudly profess, but rather, are simply people who are angry and confused at the cultural changes swirling about them and have decided that all that is wrong in the world and in their lives can be laid at the feet of the government or at general boards of the United Methodist Church respectively? In other words, are these "movements" (and I seriously question the validity of using that term here at all for these groups) really more interested in assigning blame than casting forth a vision to live into? We know who these groups hate, but what exactly are they for?

The truth is that neither the so-called tea party movement nor Save the UMC is a new phenomenon. I suggest that they have been around for a long, long time. In his book, "Wars, Guns, and Votes," Paul Collier, a scholar attempting to explain why poor countries also are more violent, asserts that in "ethnically diverse societies...voting for the extremist parties offers the strongest identity fix." (2009, p. 57) In a different context that the author intended, I believe his argument works well here. In an increasingly urbanized and globalized world, tribalism often offers the greatest comfort to those who feel their identity is not just being challenged, but swallowed up and lost.

I believe this can easily be applied to these groups today. Unfortunately, while this kind of retrenchment into tribalism offers comfort, it also creates greater exclusivity, isolation, and detachment. Difference - for those who are retrenched - is not something to value, but something to avoid. Difference or diversity is to be mocked and is even viewed as hostile because it undermines who you are and what you believe. You need your tribe and all other views or identity groups must be pushed out if not even possibly eliminated in extreme cases.

So, how should those who truly are focused on working for and participating in the expansion of God's Kingdom in this world (and not just professing it) respond to groups like the Save the UMC? When we look to the gospels we see that groups like Save the UMC are merely modern iterations of the Pharisees and religious leaders in Jesus' time. In the final analysis, the creators of Save the UMC are actually bullies intent on kicking out who are perceived as different from their rigidly defined doctrines. But we must remember that bullies are sometimes the most vulnerable and in the greatest need of redemption, are they not?

I think a clear case can be made that compares the Pharisees with groups like Save the UMC. Interestingly, both the Pharisees and groups like Save the UMC are highly doctrinaire to the point that those who fail to hold to their unbending understandings of sacred texts are viewed as being outside God's grace. But, as Jesus pointed out in the gospels, and as seen above, neither the Pharisees nor Save the UMC actually are interested in living out those principles. The principles are used for means of distinguishing who they are from who they are not, not for invitations. If it was in any way invitational, then I might be meeting with the creators of Save the UMC right now.

Further, both the Pharisees and groups like Save the UMC live in contexts that are increasingly globalized and multicultural. While multiculturalism came to distinguish the New Testament Church (though much of Acts can be read through the lens of the disciples consistently resisting, but then giving in to the Holy Spirit's constant pull into deeper missional and cross-cultural relationships), the Pharisees felt deeply threatened especially by the encroachment by the Romans. Similarly, Save the UMC feels especially threatened by theological pluralism.

All this to say is that while Jesus, throughout the gospels, offers invitations for the Pharisees and religious leaders to repent and join his mission, he ultimately calls them out and exposes them for who they are: hypocrites (Matthew 23). Even then, a few religious leaders came to follow Jesus as Christ. Jesus lived an invitational life, but also was not afraid to be brutally - and I mean brutally honest.

So, I have no choice. As flabbergasted as I was and still am at their refusal to meet, I still offer the folks at Save the UMC the invitation to sit and talk and find ways to work together for the expansion of God's Kingdom. I believe good could come out of that kind of discussion. But I also recognize that groups like the Save the UMC and the so-called tea party movement are various iterations of the same historic resistance to cultural change. And unfortunately that resistance can be hostile and exclusivist as it is even now. They are both simply bullies who demand what they want and threaten to kick out anyone who disagrees even slightly. So, yes, we continue to missionally offer invitations to Save the UMC, but we also must recognize who they really are: bullies who desperately need redemption and liberation that can only be found in Christ.