Listening and believing are not synonyms

People often act as if forgetting and forgiving are synonymous acts. Sometimes, perhaps even often, this couldn’t be further from the truth. While the act of forgiveness can be a liberating one for both victim and perpetrator, the act of forgetting can bring with it significant risk, often born unevenly by the victim. The confusion of these two things can be a barrier for those seeking true reconciliation and healing.

In a similar way, the acts of listening and believing are too often conflated to the detriment of all involved. When we act as if these things are synonymous, the act of listening becomes a partisan one rather than a movement of common decency and compassion.

Americans, particularly those who consider themselves people of faith, should reflexively recoil against rushing to judgment as accusations are made in any given situation. We have a long history of being quick to judge and slow to truly listen; the witch trials we learned of as children have any antecedents which often received sacred cover. Religious leaders, who were commonly complicit in the past, have the freedom today to seek a different role as we are no longer looked to to offer judgment in such situations.

While we can and should reserve judgment, we ought also fight fiercely for the rights of individuals to be heard and for their accusations to be fairly investigated. While justice should always be blind, we cannot ignore our tendency to listen more easily to certain groups per our often unconscious biases. This reality demands advocacy on behalf of those who hold less power and privilege in society so that justice is not just blind but also fair.

Pursuing justice and equality for those who have been often been denied it is why it is so important to hold the acts of listening and believing separately. By confusing the two, we risk undermining the progress that has been made. A fair process is necessary to resolve accusations, even if it won’t always yield the justice victims deserve. Advocacy that blurs listening and believing is dangerous in that it could yield false accusations and the erosion of what it seeks, a generous place for victims to speak their piece.

Kavanaugh accusation as case study

Now I’ve been following the U.S. Supreme Court nominee drama with all the partisan zeal one might imagine. I can’t pretend to be objective but I have sincerely held the various possibilities in mind. To this point, like many I’ve weighed the accusations of Dr. Cristine Blassey Ford against Judge Brett Kavanaugh and seen nothing to suggest they weren’t credible (which is distinct from being accurate) and thus worthy of investigation. The subsequent claim by Deborah Ramirez over the weekend, and a statement by his freshman roommate at Yale about regular drunkenness and belligerent behavior, should give reasonable people some additional pause.

Senator Orrin Hatch and Brett Kavanaugh. Photo: Senator Hatch Office Twitter.

It strikes me that this is exactly the sort of situation where an serious investigative process needs to step in as “credible” is an insufficient bar to arrive at anything akin to justice. And this is where I find that the behavior of Ford and Kavanaugh diverges in ways that suggest that Ford’s allegation has potential merit. Dr. Ford and her representatives have been asking for due process, for the introduction of third parties to investigate and testify under oath. She has proactively taken and passed a lie detector test and put her reputation at risk and family through this tumult, with acknowledged reluctance.

In contrast, Judge Kavanaugh and his advocates have actively sought to avoid process. While one can imagine less sinister political motivations, the refusal to allow an investigation, and to call on other potential witnesses to testify under oath, suggests they have something to hide. It forces people to prejudge the situation and casts a cloud over Kavanaugh’s nomination that is damaging to a country that is toxically partisan already. 

People of faith and their religious leaders have an obligation, in part due to their complicity with unjust systems in the past, to advocate for sincere listening, and fair processes in situations like these. Unburdened by past expectations to deliver judgment, we should earnestly support those who have been victims and advocate on behalf of those with less power so that their voices are heard. People of faith should never fear the truth, even when it isn’t politically expedient.

This advocacy work doesn’t require us to render judgment without the full story, and we should use much restraint in doing so, but it does require us to speak out for potential victims and against those who continue to use their power to belittle and bully those with less voice. When you think about it, it sounds like something Jesus might do.

7 Good Things that could happen if Denominations were to Retire

I work on staff for a denomination, serving in middle management for a regional office supporting outreach to young people and communications. I don’t share this to impress anyone, or to suggest I have much sway or power (I have neither). I mention it to provide context to the words that follow.

While I am not a denominational power player, my position has required me to pay attention to what is happening in the church I work for, and to catch the occasional sideways glance at what is occurring in our sister denominations.

My position has also afforded me opportunities to meet a number of the leaders who do have positional and relational power within our structure. They are, with rare exception, faithful, talented, and well-meaning people who work very hard.

In my time serving within this denomination, I’ve rarely met an individual who would say that our best years are still ahead of us. Sure, I’ve been privy to the aspirational sermon or two, but the lofty goals rarely hold fast in real talk grounded in what is actually happening. Too many of the numbers we measure are heading in the wrong direction for that.

This problem is even bigger than you think

A priest raped a 7-year-old girl while he was visiting her in the hospital after she’d had her tonsils removed. Another priest forced a 9-year-old boy into having oral sex, then rinsed out the boy’s mouth with holy water. One boy was forced to say confession to the priest who sexually abused him.”

If those words don’t disturb you, you aren’t paying attention.

A grand jury report released this week in the state of Pennsylvania offered details on more than 300 Roman Catholic priests who victimized over 1,000 children since the 1940s. These statistics do not include the undeterminable number of victims who did not come forward, or whose records of complaint were lost by a church accused of “systematically covering up complaints.” Most of these incidents occurred during years some people nostalgically look back upon as “great.”

The misconduct of Catholic priests is not a new topic. In the 16 years since the Boston Globe unveiled similar patterns of abuse and coverup in the Boston Diocese (a story featured in the excellent film Spotlight), pedophile priests have become a disturbing meme. Equally familiar is the sense that church leadership failed not only in the moment, but that the failure is ongoing as the institution lumbers forward under a cloud, with defensive acts of contrition serving as an ill-fitting replacement for much needed transparency.

More constructively, in 2002 the Catholic Bishops in the United States adopted a “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” which implemented needed reforms to safeguard those in their care and to correct some of the patterns of concealment. Absent transparency and contrition from every level of the church, these actions were seen by some as too little, much too late.

While the Catholic Church reluctantly absorbs the spotlight in this area, no church is truly off the hook. The many stories of ministerial misconduct that can be found in news reporting across the country speak to the need for all churches to remain vigilant, adopting practices to safeguard children and other vulnerable persons from abuse and exploitation of all sorts.

Many mainline denominations and some non-denominational churches adopted their own safe church practiceswith renewed vigor after Roman Catholicism’s first public shaming. In some cases, these church bodies were reacting to their own incidents of clergy (and staff) misconduct; in other instances, they were acting proactively to minimize the possibility of some harm being done. Sadly, to this day many churches believe themselves somehow immune to any potential problem, buying into faulty lines of thought like “but we know everyone here.”

While it may be easy for church goers to believe that these new (old) problems in Pennsylvania bear little resemblance to the church they attend, the impact of these headlines is both cumulative and distributed; meaning each continues to erode the reputations of the Church (universal) and religious figures of all sorts, and that to many the sectarian divides we recognize matter little.

Movements like #MeToo remind us that such problems are not limited to vulnerable children, nor to the church. Wherever power imbalances exist, there is the possibility of harm especially in situations where thoughtful protocols and practices have not yet replaced the defaults of good ol’ boynetworking and personal influence. Those traditions that have blessed themselves with an openness to the gifts and callings of female clergy may find themselves doubly blessed in that while women can be sex offenders too, they are far less likely than men to offend and their presence can disrupt good ol’ boy networks.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” (Matthew 19:14)

The Church has received a difficult charge from Jesus, one made more complicated by our reluctance to break with old patterns and truly repent of past misdeeds. Regaining the necessary institutional trust to call the next generation of disciples forward will take a continued and concerted effort from Christians of all stripes.

So please be disturbed by this latest story of Catholicism’s colossal failure. Be angry too, for its impact first on the vulnerable and then upon us all. Just don’t be complacent.


A thank you letter from a Christian to President Trump

Thank you, Donald Trump!

Throughout your career as a businessman, entertainer, and now, a public servant, you have shown an aptitude (that means gift) for communicating in clear, concise (that means short, to the point) ways that cause a reaction. It’s why you are so amazing at Twitter, a platform known for its ability to bring people together (that was sarcasm).

Today I am grateful for the reminder (unintended perhaps) your presidency provides that there is, was, and always will be two Christianities. Is this an oversimplification? Perhaps, but in your honor as commander in chief, I’m going to keep it simple. No need to dig deep into Christological distinctives (that means different opinions about who Jesus was) or denominational preferences. Most are hardly worth interrupting your “executive time.”

Simply put, there is a Christianity enamored by worldly power, and a Christianity that remembers that that same power put Jesus on the cross.

The first Christianity, despite its protestations and pretenses to the contrary, chases this worldly power. It lifts up its numbers, builds glorious stadiums, and throws it political weight around. It sees success as a sign of God’s blessing and poverty as evidence of some misdoing (a hidden sin or laziness). This Christianity, Mr. President, first rose to compromised power with Constantine the Great but, as you know, it is alive and well today.

The second Christianity is inherently suspicious of worldly power. It remembers the many times, throughout the Church’s history, where her Saint’s blood has flowed in the streets. It hasn’t forgotten what worldly power did to Jesus, Paul or Peter, Ignatius, Joan of Arc, Thomas More, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Óscar Romero, or Martin Luther King, Jr. among many, many others. I’m sure you learned about many of these people, Mr. President, when you attended the “best colleges, or college.

On behalf of the many people who consider themselves Christian, Mr. President, I hope you’ll hear this confession. We have not always, with our whole hearts anyway, declared our loyalty to one Christianity (or kin(g)dom) over the other. While not all of us spend our days tickling your ears with complements about the size of your nuclear button, even those of us who affiliate with the second Christianity respond in ways, to the power you wield, that must be confusing. Just as your sycophant (that means suck-up) religious advisors might feel a twinge of guilt when you tweet something sensationally crude about Crooked Hillary or Sloppy Steve, we sometimes care too much about the powers that be as well.

As you were running for President, James Dobson, one of your close religious confidants gave us all insight to belay any worries we had about your past moral shortcomings. Remembering his words that you were, and perhaps still are, “a baby Christian,” I offer this short edification (that means instruction).

At the end of the day, we all must decide, brother Donald, who we are. Are we the type of Christian who arrogantly brings Jesus to shithole countries (as you put it so “modern day” presidentially) to assuage (means to make one feel better) their collective guilt, or are we the Christian who knows that such countries are where we are most likely to encounter our Lord?

Let me conclude this letter to you with a lovely piece of Scripture written by the Apostle Paul to two Corinthians he met:

For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

Again, thank you President Trump for the reminder that Christians always have a choice regarding the Christianity they’ll choose and the power they recognize, one that is fleeting and one that is eternal.

Photo Credit: Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead via Wikimedia Commons.

Are you a Uniting Methodist?

I didn’t grow up in The United Methodist Church. For the entire time I’ve been a United Methodist, I’ve also been an employee of the same on either a local church or regional level. And frankly speaking, if I wasn’t an employee of The United Methodist Church, I might just as easily belong to a church of another denomination altogether.

By sharing this, I don’t mean to intimate that I’m just a hired gun, that I’m eager to leave The United Methodist Church, or that I have no concern for its future. In general, I believe that my perspective can be a nice balance to those offered by UMC-lifers who have never identified as something else. But it is also true that it leaves me less capable of understanding the full spectrum of emotions that people express when the topic of schism arises.

I offer this full disclosure because I think it is very important to understand the differing motivations and unspoken assumptions of everyone engaging in dialog around the future of the denomination. In fact, I believe there is a very simple, fundamental question we fail to ask as we consider the difficult conversations that The United Methodist Church is engaged in currently. The question is this:

Is this the action of a uniting Methodist?

The One True Church???

In the wake of the so-called “Nashville Statement” it has never been clearer that there is no singular Christian faith. Perhaps the best analogue is the Sunni-Shia split in Islam. We hold enough similarities for deep acrimony with the potential for mutual understanding always found just beyond arm’s reach.

There has never been a better example of preaching to the choir than the aforementioned statement, met with shades of anger and sadness by many moderate and progressive Christians, and received as yet another example of Christian intolerance by a population bloating with Nones and Dones (when noticed at all). I suspect such a divisive response was intended by those seeking to name their bold position on human sexuality.

Regardless, it is clear that the divide in the Church is no longer between Protestant and Catholic, or even Catholic and Orthodox; it is between adherents who seek to faithfully remember and others who strive to faithfully understand (and not just a few troubled disciples in either camp who can’t find the grace to see value beyond themselves).

Despite my own location in the “understanding” camp, I have cherished relationships over the years with a number of people in the “remember” camp. Is it foolishness to believe that diversity makes us stronger? If so, our inability to find it’s value may be the straw the breaks the camel’s back.

And if a camel’s back is broken, there is no way in hell it threads the eye of the proverbial needle.

The Day the Music Dies -or- Redemption Song? #UMC #NoSuchLaw

Here is a guest post I recently did for the Hacking Christianity blog. If you didn’t read it before, enjoy!

I’ve been wrestling with some pessimistic apathy about this week’s United Methodist Judicial Council hearings. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the potential impact their decision could have, especially for Bishop Karen Oliveto and the Mountain Sky Area. I simply doubt that the ruling will resolve our connectional impasse because of some fundamental shifts in how United Methodists relate to each other. Let me explain by way of an analogy.

In 1999, a peer-to-peer file sharing service called Napster was released into the public. While it wasn’t the first of its kind, the platform made the sharing of digital files easy, just as the MP3 format was becoming popular. The nearly simultaneous release of MP3 players, most notably the original iPod in 2001, drove the adoption of digital music upon the realized promise that one could now hold thousands of songs in their pocket.

When I’m feeling apathetic, I listen to music. Here’s a playlist to accompany the article.

The relative anonymity provided by file sharing platforms like Napster ensured that the music industry would need to respond in some way to what they would define as “stealing music.” The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) would come to sue 35,000 people over a five year period from 2003 to 2008 with the intent of frightening “the general public into not copying music.” While the RIAA was successful in wiping out college savings accounts, harming the reputations of individuals, sometimes errantly, and creating any number of public relations nightmares as they sued indiscriminately, they didn’t actually succeed in changing behavior or, as might be assumed a part of their responsibility, improving the revenues of the labels and artists that make up the music industry. These hard realities didn’t stop them of course; the RIAA only stopped the lawsuits when they ran out of money for them.

In the midst of these tumultuous times, musicians provoked conversations. Some took strong stances on either side of the file-sharing conversation. The rock band Metallica sued Napster head-on, winning some court cases but losing many fans along the way. The band Radiohead responded differently to the digital opportunity, releasing music in ways that connected directly to fans and forced record labels to rethink their purpose and imagine a possible reality where they no longer existed.

The music industry had been in a slump even before their digital “problem” emerged. It wasn’t until 2012 that the industry would experience another year of growth and that came after its embrace of digital sales. Since then, it has continued to explore new formats and models for distributing music. Who would have predicted in 1999 that a growing percentage of consumers would rent their music instead of buying it?

(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction

Now I can appreciate how frustrating the past 20 years must have been for conservatives in The United Methodist Church. Over this time, numerous complaints and a number of high-profile trials have done little to change the minds and hearts of those who feel differently. Progressives have similarly have had their hopes dashed, over and again, for any change in the official position of the church.

What neither side seems to accept is the fundamental manner in which the ways we connect, and derive authority, have changed over this same period of time. Sure, we still have a formal structure that connects church to district, and district to conference, and conference to jurisdiction (or central conference), and jurisdiction to General Conference. But the power of that formal structure is passing away, for better or worse, like CDs made way for digital.

Much has been written about the erosion of trust in institutions. Slow to move, burdened with regulations and bureaucracy, they are an easy enough target for our animus. I doubt that many were surprised when the UMC, like the RIAA, initially responded to LGBTQ-related violations of its polity with the tools institutions have; defrocking and suspensions, our equivalents of lawsuits and threats of the same. What is indeed shocking is how very incapable we have proven ourselves to be in adapting much to the failure of such actions to change behavior, even when compared to the recording industries less than stellar example.

After a particularly disappointing 2012 General Conference, the late Bishop Jack M. Tuell, widely respected for his expertise in United Methodist polity, acknowledged the need for a “tweaking” of our structure as we strive to be a global church. While he affirmed the goal of a global church as a good one, Bishop Tuell wisely recognized the need to limit the scope of General Conference and to define the United States as a region free to make some changes for its distinct mission field, a privilege we had already afforded to the rest of the world.

As the good Bishop acknowledged, these ideas were hardly new in 2012. Our failure to make any meaningful changes to our United Methodist structure has left us in quite a dilemma forcing our leaders to insist on the efficacy of 8-tracks in a digital age, eroding what little moral authority they still retain.

Absent a reasonable forum to address change or engage in sincere Christian conferencing, we’ve unintentionally turned the task of defining United Methodist identity over to the various caucus groups that have arisen to stake out positions on the left and the right. As each year passes, we are more inclined to see ourselves as the true proprietors of United Methodist identity and less inclined to entertain other viewpoints.

The Song Remains the Same 🙁

All of this leaves me feeling apathetic in regards to next week’s Judicial Council hearings, as if we are all just going through the motions. If I’m a conservative, or a liberal, I’ve already been told how I will respond if the Judicial Council does this, that, or the other thing. I’ve seen very little that suggests anyone will simply accept the council’s ruling if they don’t like it. And to be honest, as hard as I struggle to maintain some modicum of moderation, I would be disappointed if they did. The structure we have deserves to fail because we have done so little, together, to help it to adapt to a changing world.

Our one final, moonshot-like, hope resides in the Commission on a Way Forward and the special General Conference in 2019 that has been called by the Council of Bishops. But again I find myself pessimistic. One might think that equipping a group of thoughtful, diverse Christians to speak candidly with each other, and tasking them to work toward solutions, is exactly what we need. In fact, I have no doubt that it would be for many, if not most, United Methodists.

What concerns me is a suspicion that the Commission has been tasked to create a product the loud voices do not want. After all, a truly united Methodist church wouldn’t need all of those caucus groups to tell us what John Wesley would do. Those associations, ministries and even seminaries that mirror the services of the denominations would look foolish without all the distraction our infighting provides; they might even look schismatic.

That is not to neglect our personal role in this. We have all grown accustomed to our own voices and the comfort found in the echo chambers we inhabit. Do we even remember what the church sounds like without the constant politicking; are we wise enough to find value in divergent opinions? Do we share a mission and vision that is capable of unifying our efforts and faithful to the charge we have received? I really don’t know. Some of us have invested much in our CD collections, while others really love the sound of vinyl; neither offers the flexibility required to appreciate the full catalogue of a global church.

I do know that the world could use such a witness in times like these. A truly united Methodist church, inclusive of diverse theological expressions, could testify to a love that is much greater than what is needed to sustain a simple harmony of like minds. Of course, we’d all need to give something to come to that shared turntable; those with power a measure more.

A new digital normal has settled in for the recording industry. Leaders have learned that enough people will pay for music if you make it easy and safe for them to do so; they understand that fear-mongering is unproductive. Easy digital access to music is now seen as an opportunity; something once perceived as a threat is an emerging market experiencing modest growth. To top it off, artists now have more freedom to release music in different ways, consumers have more choices than ever, and even the record labels have adapted to preserve a role for themselves.

May God give us the strength to listen hard to find value in dissonant notes and to await patiently for new melodies to emerge. Our church could use more people gifted with such graces today, and the world would be blessed by their witness.