No Justice, No Unity

Recently, those of us who are United Methodists were introduced to a new national organization called the “Uniting Methodist Movement” (UMM).  The offspring of a number of  self-identified “centrist” Methodist leaders, the UMM represents an attempt to carve out a middle space in our denomination’s ongoing fight around LGBTQ inclusion; space that allows individual clergy, churches, and annual conferences to follow their own consciences as it pertains to the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the life of the church.

On the surface, this would appear to be a healthy middle ground in the midst of a highly polarized denominational debate.  And who could argue with a position that allows clergy to follow their consciences?  It crafts a via media in which our beloved United Methodist Church stays unified, but still makes progress on the current regressive language of our church law (the aptly-named Book of Discipline).

A year ago, I might have signed onto such a position with some enthusiasm. (It would certainly make my own life easier!)  Today, however, I find myself in a different place, acutely aware that such a compromise comes at the expense of the full inclusion of my LGBTQ sisters and brothers.  It includes them a little (a step in the right direction), but still willingly accepts their exclusion in other corners of our denominational life. 

As a foundational concept, the UMM position appeals to John Wesley’s commitment to creating a theologically “big tent,” in which differing theological positions can exist in dialogue.  While this idea is certainly a gift from John Wesley, encouraging dialogue and inclusion, it feels to me as though the concept is being misused in this context.  Wesley’s passionate abolitionism, for example, would never have tolerated reading Scripture to justify slavery (though many in his day did exactly that).

More importantly, we are not the church of John Wesley; we are the church of Jesus Christ.  We follow a savior who -- without exception -- placed himself among the marginalized and persecuted, and stood against the institutional status quo that perpetuated injustice.  Jesus was not moderate or centrist.  The Principalities and Powers don’t bother crucifying moderates and centrists.

Please understand that I have the deepest respect for the leaders of the UMM, many of whom I know well and love.  But I also note that nowhere among their ranks is there anyone who identifies as LGBTQ, which lends the unfortunate appearance that a lot of straight people (also largely white and male), are crafting a policy on LGBTQ inclusion.  That’s a problem.

If a group of male leaders drafted a position on the inclusion of women in the life of the church, we would be appropriately cynical; likewise, if a group of white people drafted a position paper on the inclusion of people of color.  Read the statements from the UMM and try substituting “women” or “people of color” where it speaks of sexual orientation, and ask yourself if their compromise would be acceptable.  It wouldn’t.

And this sacrifice of justice for our LGBTQ brothers and sisters is made on the altar of denominational unity.  Now I’m all for unity; there are a host of important ministries made possible by the size and scope of our denomination.  But I’m really not sure that unity should be our highest priority.  We can work together without being a single denomination.  When unity comes at the price of justice, the price is too high. 

I read an article today entitled “Don’t Settle for the Middle.”  At this moment in my own spiritual journey, I’m also not inclined to “settle for the middle.”  I’d like us to work for getting it all.  What would it look like to fully embrace God’s call for justice, to fully embrace Christ’s vision of the Kingdom of God, and then let the chips fall where they may?  Our denomination may end up with a centrist position, but I don’t need to facilitate that.  I’m going to be where I think Jesus would be.

Our denomination has split before, and it may split again.  We split over slavery in 1844 and reunited in 1939.  We may split over homosexuality, and we’ll reunite in 20 or 30 years when our children (who don’t understand why we were fighting over this) are in charge.  In the meantime, the call of the Kingdom of God is to work towards justice.