Who Has Been Harmed?
When a violation of the Book of Discipline occurs, related to overlapping marks of LGBTQ and Christian (United Methodist) community and identity, we might begin with a question: Who has been harmed?
Possible answers include the following:
- Some persons define the harm in a direct way-a parishioner belongs to a church, and senses that her liturgical space has been used for a political (or unbiblical) purpose.
- Some persons define the harm in a more indirect way-a United Methodist in one place describes confusion about interpretation of scripture or conceptions of holiness.
- And some persons focus instead on addressing the root causes of the harm; for example, a paragraph in the Book of Discipline that singles out a particular and isolated practice as incompatible with Christian teaching (161.F).
When harm has occurred, there is often a tendency to assign blame and seek justice. This justice focuses first on the person who has caused the offense, and for some justice requires punishment, which is seen as the consequence of the behavior. In essence, accountability implies punishment. Thus a "just resolution" can look like a sequence of events: the victim has been harmed by the offender and has experienced pain; the resolution must include a corresponding experience of pain by the offender. In this way we objectify the other; we do not see each other as persons, and this arises from a "heart at war" (The Anatomy of Peace).
A Heart at Peace
The alternative to a heart at war is a "heart at peace." In his commentary on Matthew, Stanley Hauerwas reflects on the nature of Mary's pregnancy, a violation of the law, and Joseph's response:
"Unwilling to cause Mary distress, to expose her to public disgrace, he planned to dismiss her discreetly. Joseph, therefore, refused to act according to the law, but rather chose to act in a manner that Jesus himself would later exemplify in his attitude toward known sinners (Matthew 9.10-13)."
In the institutional church, some are quite willing to see the other vilified publicly. And yet, when the person is someone we love, or when we are living in grace, can we not seek justice or judgment privately? If you were the offender, how would you hope to be treated? At our worst, we want justice for the stranger and grace for ourselves, our families and our friends. At our best, we take no delight in the public disgrace of those who transgress the law.
At our worst, we live and lead from a heart at war. At our best, we live and lead from a heart at peace. Matthew 15 describes a conversation between Jesus and the religious leaders of his time about the traditions of the elders, in particular about the violation of laws (commandments). His response is to quote the prophet Isaiah ("people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me" (15. 8). He then offers the insight that we are defiled by the words that we speak, which reveal the state of our hearts (15.18-19).
We begin from within, and we express the condition of our heart in speech. This speech matters; as Abraham Heschel noted, "words create worlds." Our world includes the systems where we live and lead. And these systems, in turn, come to shape and define us over time.
Our Western legal systems are often grounded in a heart at war, more rooted in criminal and retributive justice than restorative justice , in the laws that have been broken rather than the harm that has been done. The United Methodist Church has based its conception of justice and just resolutions on this model, with our complex system of a judicial council, trials, presiding officers in these trials (bishops) and conference chancellors (attorneys). Further, it is a United States-centric model, even as the church itself has become more global (Africa, Philippines, Europe).
These legal and criminal justice systems are increasingly understood to be untenable and unsustainable in the United States-note the reality of mass incarceration, the inequity of legal representation, etc.-and have not been helpful in securing justice in The UMC. Trials are "to be regarded as an expedient of last resort" (BOD, 2707), but they are the preferred method of behavior among those who have mastered this craft (often clergy with professional training or degrees in the law) and are most comfortable in this environment. And there is the occasional absurdity of those who publicly proclaim "no more trials" while privately insisting on a trial-which is a right within the present BOD.
The Present State of The United Methodist Church
In the present moment, the church includes within its membership (clergy and laity) persons who sharply disagree about understandings of human sexuality (orientation and practice) and ways to live together amidst the dissonance. The polity of the whole church is revised (or not) once every four years, often in a plenary session that occurs within a one-hour time period. Protest movements surround this conference and at times disrupt the deliberations. Regional bodies (annual conferences, boards of ordained ministry and colleges of bishops) make statements that reflect the values of smaller and usually more homogeneous groups of people; this work is done with more ease, agreement and clarity.
The Council of Bishops is often criticized for its lack of leadership in this conversation, even as the General Conference disperses authority to other bodies (clergy sessions, boards of ministry) or rejects the idea that a bishop could work exclusively ("set-apart") in this area. In addition, the COB is simply more global and complex in its nature than the regional bodies or advocacy groups. Lastly, our denominational media often drives a trial-centric, criminal and legal justice frame in its reporting on human sexuality; a quick internet search will bear this out.
This intricate web of persons, systems and roles is not in itself the problem. I simply wonder if we do our work with a set of assumptions that may be neither helpful nor truthful. In The Anatomy of Peace, this is described as collusion (p. 52). We have become very sophisticated at sustaining conflict and creating systems that perpetuate conflict.
From Collusion to Covenant
In our unhealthy patterns of behavior we are joined together via collusion--we bring out the worst in each other, we do harm to each other, and this mutual harm creates a bond between us. When we acknowledge this reality, and we do so in the words of our prayer of confession-"we have failed to be an obedient church"-and when we declare our intention to change (repentance), we are on a journey from collusion to covenant with each other. In United Methodism these covenants are formed in public ways through baptism, membership, licensing ordination and consecration. These covenants are also renewed when we recite the words at Holy Communion, in our appeal to God to "Make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to the world."
Unity, which is a gift of God, is also the fruit of the difficult work of moving beyond our tribalisms (our preferences, etc.) toward a relationship with and identity in the One who transcends every particularity. Such a covenant is built on trust-faith in God's faithfulness (Romans 3-4), and sharing of life (koinonia) with each other (Philippians 1). This trust also includes our capacity to be trustworthy in regard to transparency, competence and integrity.
Our affirmations of faith (creeds) are statements of trust. In this way, Wesleyan Christians are both conciliar and confessional; we are never one without the other-and so there is no truth without unity, or grace without truth, or unity without grace. In John 1.14-18, Jesus is described as the tent of meeting, the glory of God among us, in the flesh. God is glorified whenever the followers of Jesus gather in his name and spirit, and find themselves repeating his actions. The word grace appears rarely in John, but reminds us of the gift of the light that is coming into the world, that shines in the darkness. Truth is not our usual sense of a belief to be affirmed or a standard to be upheld; instead, truth is a real, authentic experience (see Lesslie Newbigin's masterful commentary, The Light Has Come). And lastly, grace is not contrasted to truth in these verses; grace and truth (embodied in the flesh, in Jesus, wherever we encounter him) are contrasted with the law. Moses had asked to see God; he was given the Torah, which is the way to life. And yet in Jesus, we see God, and in His life, which unfolds in John's gospel, we see again and again the fullness of grace and truth.
Jesus comes to embody the new covenant , full of grace and truth in contrast to and in fulfillment of the old covenant. The language of covenant is most fundamentally the acknowledgement that we live within a scarred history and amidst a broken world, and that we are in need of covenantal relationships. God has shown us the way, remaining faithful when we are faithless, providing strength in our weakness, seeking us when we would prefer not to be found, and never giving up on us. This is the lesson of the succession of prophets who come in the history of Israel, reminders of God's steadfast, covenant faithfulness, refusing to end the divine-human relationship, and even, in the fullness of time, at the cost of the atoning sacrifice, who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1. 29). The fullness of this covenant is both external and internal-the word that comes from beyond us, the law that is written on the heart (Jeremiah 31. 33) and the spirit that gives life. And biblical covenant is always a paradox-constricting and life-giving, dying to self and rising to human flourishing, losing our lives and finding them.
Just Resolution: An Alternative Path
God is always seeking a way forward in the scriptures, a way beyond our brokenness and rebellion and estrangement. So how might this shape our covenant-making, covenant-breaking and covenant renewal with each other? What if there is another way forward in seeking just resolutions? And what if this way is more rooted in restorative justice? We might begin not with a focus on violation of the Book of Discipline but on the harm that is caused in our connection (see The Little Book of Restorative Justice). This leads us back to our first General Rule-to "do no harm." Here the church (usually a bishop or district superintendent) will begin by seeking to reframe the event-from a formal complaint regarding violation of the BOD to the implications for the connection, most often life in an annual conference or perhaps in a local church.
The bishop (or designated person) might begin with a fundamental question: How does the victim articulate the harm done? Both offender and victim (respondent and complainant) are involved in the process.
- Can the offending person acknowledge the harm done?
- Can the offending person adequately articulate, where appropriate, the root causes of the behavior to the person who has been harmed?
- Can the victim understand the root causes that motivate the offender?
- Can this be done, in The United Methodist Church, with a deep reading of scripture and tradition?
- Can we assume or articulate a common faith?
- Can we draw upon the rich values of the experience of God's grace and the journey toward holiness?
It may be assumed that the work of restorative justice is some form of avoidance. In reality, the work may become more difficult. In comparison, adversarial processes of law separate us and do not have restoration as a goal. If the divisions are too pronounced, we go our separate ways. Note this insight from two theologians in the Anglican communion, written over a decade ago:
"It has become painfully clear that those on both the left and the right have chosen to "walk apart." The prophets on the left claim the backing of divine providence that has placed them ahead of the pack. They are content to go it alone and simply wait for others to catch up. The prophets on the right claim to be the champions of orthodoxy-charged with maintaining a faithful church in the midst of "apostasy." They are content to go it alone and await the vindication of God...The burden...is the obedient way-one that serves as a caution to the prophets on both the left and the right and a beacon to those for whom maintenance of communion constitutes a fundamental obligation." (Philip Turner and Ephraim Radner, The Fate of Communion, pp. 199-200)
But the alternative path, a set of crucial conversations, even an "obedient way", might deepen our love for God and neighbor, which John Wesley defined as the process of sanctification.
New Ways to Seek Justice
This journey inspires a set of necessary questions at the outset:
- Are we willing to stay together in doing the work of restorative justice?
- In Parker Palmer's language, can we stay at the table with those whom we sense have betrayed us (as Jesus did with Judas)?
- Can we walk with the offender in accepting the obligations inherent in his or her behavior?
- Can we begin not with the question, "How does the other person need to change?", but with "how do I need to change?"
- Do all of the stakeholders see these actions as ways of addressing the harm, and not as punishment?
- Can we articulate future expected behaviors?
- Can we reintegrate offenders and victims back into the community (conference, connection)?
- Throughout, can we show respect to everyone involved?
- Can a model of restorative justice serve/contribute to the healing of the church?
What might a just resolution look like based on these practices? There might be real accountability rather than punishment. There might be a greater acknowledgement of both the effect of actions outside of the BOD on Christians who interpret scripture and human sexuality within the traditional consensus of the ecumenical church, and the effect of our present BOD language in the lives of individuals, families and allies in the LGBTQ community. Each sees itself, at present, as a (or the) victim.
The present legal and criminal justice system, as it has been incorporated, used and misused by The United Methodist Church, is designed precisely for the results we are currently experiencing: "when our hearts go to war, we have chosen it" (The Anatomy of Peace, p. 80). If the way forward includes a connection of United Methodists, I am persuaded that we will need to discover: 1) new ways of seeking justice, and 2) new ways of being with each other. I am also aware that we will need to reconcile our divergent understandings of holiness.
Why We Disagree
A part of our challenge is that, in addition to our divergent understandings of holiness, we may have two distinct conceptions of church. These conceptions of church have been present in American Methodism for at least 200 years, and the seeds may be seen in the earliest practice of British Methodism.
One is an separatist church, which views holiness as a calling that separates us from the world-"come out from among them and be separate" (2 Corinthians 6). Here holiness is a quality that distinguishes us from the world.
A second is an activist church, which understands holiness as a movement for change in an unjust world. The boundaries between church and society are blurred, with the "wheat and tares" growing together (Matthew 13) until God's final judgment.
At times, a denomination is able to hold these two conceptions of church in tension. And at times, and in recent experience of American mainline Christianity, there is fragmentation and division.
The division may finally be the result of clearly articulated values that are not compatible. And the division may also be the result of how leaders of the two conceptions of church do harm to each other.
My delineation of the two conceptions above are of course a great simplification, and yet in every local church I served across twenty-eight years there were persons who embodied them.
And so, with the recent consecration of a practicing gay bishop, there are sharply different interpretations. One part of the church sees this as a significant step toward separation, and the recent Episcopal/Anglican experience provides a blueprint. Another part of the church views this as a historical breakthrough, a matter of justice and inclusion.
The resulting question is whether these two conceptions of church can co-exist. This, it seems to me, remains the work of the Way Forward Commission that arose through the General Conference. We are asking for time and patience to do this work faithfully and in a way that does as little harm as possible to our connection. We see these movements coming into sharper definition, and yet we hear from significant voices in the church that do not wish to be defined by either, that wish to remain in connection with each other and that seek a way forward in our mission with the LGBTQ community.
An Interim Witness: To Do No Harm, To Attain a Heart at Peace
Some time ago I came across this phrase in the Rule of Taize:
"Never resign yourself to the scandal of the separation of Christians who so readily profess love for their neighbor and yet remain divided. Make the unity of the body of Christ your passionate concern."
As a Wesleyan Christian, I have come to see over time that our journey to holiness necessarily involves the love of God and neighbor. Love of neighbor for John Wesley was an essential facet of the definition of sanctification (see his sermon, "The Almost Christian). Our divergent understandings of holiness-as either the reign of God, of which greater inclusiveness is a sign, or a set-apart righteousness, of which sexual purity is yet a different sign-must submit themselves a call to unity, even in an interim time. Indeed, from the perspective of the biblical witness, we are always living "between the times."
But in the interim, must we really walk apart? Is such an outcome a given, in a single attempt at a just resolution or in the larger conversation about our denominational future? Can we profess love for our neighbor and remain divided? Can we seek to attain a heart at peace and resist the temptation to a heart at war, which is, in the language of the Old Testament, hardness of heart? Can we imagine a new way to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God (Micah 6. 8), attentive to connection between the first question of restorative justice-"who has been harmed?" and our first General Rule-"to do no harm?"
In the present moment the way we do the work of justice and just resolution, far from being a distraction, is a sign of our witness to each other and to those beyond us, that we are indeed becoming disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Stanley Hauerwas, The Gospel of Matthew (Brazos Commentary)
Lesslie Newbigin, The Light Has Come: An Exposition of the Fourth Gospel
Howard Zehr, The Little Book of Restorative Justice
The Anatomy of Peace (The Arbinger Institute)
Philip Turner and Ephraim Radner, The Fate of Communion
Parker Palmer, "On Staying at the Table", St. Benedict's Center Newsletter, unpublished
The United Methodist Book of Discipline
The Rule of Taize