Thesis 29: In Which I Can't Stop Talking About Schism

This post is part of a series of meditations on each of Luther's "95 Theses." You can view all posts in the series here.
29. Who knows whether all the souls in purgatory wish to be bought out of it, as in the legend of Sts. Severinus and Paschal.
Over at the UMC LEAD blog on Monday, I posted a piece of writing that asked United Methodists why schism seems so scary. Hannah Bonner did a far better job of approaching this subject than I, and I highly suggest you go read it. My post was an attempt to call out our obsession with celebrity megachurch culture and its ability to drive the conversation. It was also an attempt to ask us to wake up to current realities instead of relying on traditional ways of doing church, if indeed those ways are now defunct. This latter attempt is what garnered the most response, and in some cases, vitriol. It was called "careless," "not worthy of a college sophomore," and "moronic."

I thought we were supposed to be "holy conferencing" here.

I don't even know if I really did a good job at writing about this. My connection between Manifest Destiny and Methodist polity, relying heavily on itinerant preachers, received the most critique. I'll accept that critique. I have friends, provisional and ordained elders alike, who are honestly convicted that our system of itineracy is the most effective way to enact our mission. I have no reason to question their conviction, nor their call to such an order of clergy. Mea culpa.

I do, however, strongly believe that 19th-century Methodists themselves are strongly to blame for the way that Manifest Destiny steamrolled native cultures in the American West, and that our traveling preachers made the spread of a damaging form of evangelism far easier. Yes, Wesley's polity was well established in England before it made its way to the New World, and therefore is not uniquely American. However, Methodism in the young USA was absolutely a vessel for transferring white Christianity to "noble savages," and is complicit in associated atrocities. I am not alone in thinking this:
"By enmeshing spiritual interests and national identity, Methodists justified the exercise of the government's right to use violence against Native peoples in terms of a larger divine place for the nation and its people. In keeping with its right to use violence, in cases where Methodist geographic spread outpaced the reach of civil law and U.S. military might, Methodists employed their own sense of moral law to enforce what they considered God's destiny for themselves and their nation. Methodist narratives made clear that they fought for and on behalf of the nation's interest and God's interest." -Jeffrey Williams
"McKinley [a Methodist], regarded by many historians as the 'first modern U.S. president,' was a devout man whose Christian rationale for overseas expansion harmonized with American civil religion of the time— which saw America as a nation through which God had chosen to manifest his will and power in the world. McKinley's personal faith and his vision of the nation's divinely appointed mission were inseparable." -Richard V. Pierard
"The Methodists and pioneers were on the verge of 'unbroken Indian country...advancing further and further into their country while the Indians kept constantly receding and melting away before their rapid march.'" -Eric Crouse
Even someone whose opinions I usually disagree with thinks so:
"James Polk was another deathbed Methodist who had long appreciated Methodist preaching. His grueling work ethic, which likely helped kill him shortly after leaving office, was Methodist, as was his providential notion of manifest destiny, expanding the American republic across the continent." -Mark Tooley
For goodness sake, guess what was at the end of the Oregon Trail, that perfect symbol of westward expansion? A Methodist Mission! Which ended in horrible murders over cultural tension based out of a stubborn desire on the part of white missionaries that the native group become culturally assimilated and Christian.

One of my critics claimed that such criticism is a "disservice to the preachers who risked their lives on horse through the revolution, etc." I think this is unfair logic, and it's similar to other critics' voices with similar judgments over the past year or so that I've felt comfortable writing on such topics.

People, I don't criticize the church because I hate the church. I criticize the church precisely because I love it. Because I believe in it. Because I want to see it be its best, fulfill its call, unleash justice on the world.

My family goes back at least seven or eight generations in Methodism. For all I know, one of my ancestors could have been one of those traveling preachers or missionaries! That doesn't mean they were always in the right. It's the same faulty logic that says that because you despise war and military might that you must necessarily hate all soldiers.

A common, calmer response when copying my blog post to social media frequently goes something like, "Being an LGBT or ally presence and meeting people different than you does absolutely change minds and hearts, though perhaps slowly." I can buy that. But for how long does one remain present? At what eventual cost of suffering and inhumane treatment? At what point does one decide to say "peace be with you" and leave because one is consistently being devalued?

Richard Allen created the Free African Society in 1787 because he could no longer bear being treated as a second-class human. Would we look back with our eyes today and say that he was weak or breaking covenant because he left the MEC? When he decided there was no "middle way" to be found, and created a new denomination, was he offending the body of Christ? I can't possibly imagine that we would judge him in this way. And yet this is precisely what we are accusing people of wanting to do today. Creating a split does not rip asunder the Body.

Two denominations are just as much part of a holy, catholic, and apostolic church as one that decides to remain one. Especially if they remain on good terms.

The UMC is in purgatory. Do we want to be bought out of it, or would we rather play verbal tennis all day as everything crumbles around us? Or do we realize this particular game is over, and start to realize that there are new and different and as-yet-unforeseen games to be played with new players whom we're shouting down in the name of compromise. Could we spend our energies more wisely by dreaming up what the new church looks like, rather than killing ourselves trying to resuscitate the one we've got?

Original image obtained from Wikimedia, and used under Creative Commons license.


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