May 2022 will go down in my personal history as one of the most difficult in my life. I have not written a post here for over a month for a number of reasons, including trying to work through my chronic pain to help care for our beautiful 2 acre property. My depression over my failing strength has coupled with despair over humankind’s addiction to violence. From Mariupol to Buffalo to Uvalde bloodshed has colored the news and my Eeyore-like emotional state.
Amidst all the terrible news of current affairs the unmerry month of May has been the scene of schism in the United Methodist Church, my church home for 65 years. That split along with the related political paralysis in our country got me searching for a common thread. There are several, but the one that captured my imagination is the semantic commonality shared by both my country and my church, namely that both share in their names a paradoxical claim to be “united.”
The UMC was founded 54 years ago in 1968 with the merger of two denominations, the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Evangelical United Brethren and is younger than the USA by almost 200 years. Realizing that the word “united” in both cases is more aspirational than descriptive, it still saddens me greatly that in both cases the divisions have widened over their lifespan rather than moved closer to living up to their names.
Case in point: “The United States may have been founded on the idea that all men are created equal, but during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, slaveholding was common among the statesmen who served as president. All told, at least 12 chief executives—over a quarter of all American presidents—enslaved people during their lifetimes. Of these, eight held enslaved people while in office.” (history.com)
The authors of the American experiment in democracy included the damning phrase in our constitution that enslaved persons only counted as 3/5 of a person because those authors were predominantly slave owners. That 3/5 clause was a compromise to “unite” the northern and southern colonies, but at a price we are still paying for today. Systemic racism had already been in existence for over 150 years in those colonies, and the battle over it dominated the country’s politics for 80 years ending in the bloodiest war in our history. But, unlike what most of us were taught in school, that war didn’t solve this existential problem. Systemic racism continued to poison our nation through lynchings, Jim Crowe laws, and outright genocide against Native Americans. That racism may have seemed to go underground for a few years after the successes of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s but reared its ugly head again in the 21st century in the twin evils of birtherism and Trumpism.
It frustrates me greatly that we weren’t taught about this disunited history in school. Our history text books never mentioned the Tulsa massacre of 1921or many other similar atrocities all over the country. We did not learn about the Trail of Tears or Wounded Knee or lynching of black folks for public entertainment sanctioned by the church. Those omissions were not our teachers’ fault. Those ugly parts of our history were so buried and censored that our educators didn’t know either and kept passing those lies along. “United” States? Not even close.
The disunity of the United Methodist denomination is a similarly sad story. I was ordained in 1969 in the first class of ordinands in the infant UMC. Three years later the exclusionary language condemning homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching” was inserted into our Book of Discipline, the rule book governing the UMC, by the first General Conference of the new UMC. And for the next 50 years that culture war has raged, leading to the schism in our denomination.. That Covid-postponed split began to unfold officially on May 1, 2022 with the launching of a new denomination called the Global Methodist Church by those who are opposed to ordination and marriage for LGBTQ people.
So we have these two “united” in name only entities with ever-widening irreconcilable differences. When stuck in that kind of relationship a married couple faces the painful reality that separation and divorce may be the lesser of two evils. Divorce is always messy but sometimes necessary for both parties to survive and flourish. Even Jesus instructed his disciples in Matthew 10:14: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.”
Are we at that point in either the UMC or USA? For me the answer is yes and maybe. In the case of the UMC I am convinced that a divorce is necessary. For 50 of my 53 years as an ordained pastor in the UMC the debate over LGBTQ equality in the eyes of God has dominated a large part of our corporate life and consumed so much time and energy that could have been used in more important forms of ministry. As one with first-hand experience with marital divorce I can attest to how much emotional energy is consumed by conflict and pretending to be something we are not. There comes a time in some marriages when the most loving decision is to set each other free, and the UMC is at that point.
As for the USA the issues are far more complicated. Our two major political parties are so far apart on most issues there is little common ground upon which to stand. The Gospel of John tells us that we need truth to set us free and we aren’t getting much truth. The Republican Party has descended to fear-mongering and lies to get or maintain power. Too many individuals are so concerned with inflation and losing our own privileged lives to see the bigger picture. Such short-sightedness means we keep kicking the can of climate change and other critical issues down the road and leaving our children and grandchildren with a bleak future. Any modicum of impartiality and non-partisanship in the judiciary at every level has succumbed to political gamesmanship. Any hope for real election reform to undo the damage caused by Citizens United would have to be enacted by the very lawmakers who benefit from existing laws. That seems to be an idealistic pipe dream.
When we can’t even manage a peaceful transition of power in a Presidential election it seems hopeless to think we Americans could engineer any kind of altruistic or amicable divorce.
For real or even semi-unity in either of these cases a healthy dose of conversion to comply more closely to our founding ideals in the Bible or the constitution respectively would be necessary. Unfortunately the only road to conversion is through confession and repentance, and I see little humility needed to make that happen in our church or nation. If we continue to bear the heavy burden of pretending to be something we are not instead of facing the hard truth of our real history we will never have the courage or energy needed to hear the truth.
But here’s the truth that sets us free. We are still loved even in our division and sinfulness. Our creator’s unconditional love is what sets us free to confess our failures and move toward a more perfect union. It’s that simple and yet so hard because it requires a leap of faith. The alternative is to keep widening the chasm of disunity until it is beyond repair.