Is there any #UMC accountability for resisting injustice and oppression?

Is there any #UMC accountability for resisting injustice and oppression? May 27, 2014

It seems like in United Methodism as with many things, there are unspoken rules about which things we say for nicety sake and which things actually have teeth. One of the things that sounds pretty to say but doesn’t actually have any covenantal teeth to it is the second question of our baptismal vows, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever form they present themselves?” If this question had any danger of being enforced with accountability, then I imagine the Good News voting bloc would be strategizing right now to get it struck from the United Methodist Hymnal at General Conference 2016. But what would it look to be held accountable for resisting injustice and oppression in whatever form they present themselves?

Because that’s the question that is really the driving force behind the rebellion of a lot of United Methodist clergy on the LGBT issue. They believe they are supposed to accept the freedom and power God gives them to resist what they recognize to be a form of injustice and oppression. Whether or not that’s a correct assessment, that’s why they’re doing what they’re doing. That’s why they say that our covenant is self-contradictory. And the reason it’s so easy to say back that they’re just being wickedly deceitful is because we all know that the baptismal questions we ask our new members when they join the church are filled with flowery, politically correct language that they’re not supposed to actually take seriously. You’re just supposed to listen while the pastor says blah blah blah and then say “I do” or “I will” at the end of it. I always try to help people out by adding “Do you?” or “Will you?” at the end so they don’t accidentally invalidate their membership covenant by saying “Yes” or something else that isn’t written in the book for them to say.

Granted, we have a lot of things about living together as a denominational family that we have to hold in tension. I’m not saying that this baptismal question empowers anyone to toss aside any particular piece of our Book of Discipline that is our collective discernment process as a covenantal body. But there should be tension! If we take seriously the call to resist injustice and oppression in whatever form they present themselves, that should mean that our debates are never “settled” and we shouldn’t be irritated with people who never stop questioning and challenging the status quo, because that’s the duty we’ve given to them with their second baptismal vow. They’re supposed to be digging for any injustice and oppression in our system that needs to be recognized and challenged, no matter how many times it’s already been discussed. The line that I’ve drawn for myself is that I will honor what the Discipline tells me to do and speak the truth that I believe God has compelled me to speak, because doing the latter is not a violation of anything in our covenant but is part of my duty to our discernment process.

So let me frame the question differently. Why isn’t it a “chargeable offense” to be caught not resisting injustice and oppression in whatever form they present themselves? Why don’t we have a dial on our congregational dashboard websites measuring how much injustice and oppression we’ve resisted each week? Why isn’t it part of our charge conference reports and our pastoral evaluation forms? Why does one of the three core questions that we think every person becoming a Christian needs to answer have absolutely no teeth within our covenant?

Oh yeah, that’s all that social justice stuff that those liberals love to rant and rave about. Well, I’ll tell you what. It’s why the Methodist church is declining. Because we’ve got so many wasteful bureaucracies writing endless reports about the status of women and minorities in ministry and coming up with quotas that we have to follow to be “diverse” enough on our committees. And we’re so distracted by all this political correctness that we’ve forgotten how to preach the gospel. Resisting injustice and oppression? That’s what people do instead of facing their own sin. How does that have anything to do with preaching the gospel? What does that have to do with discipleship? How is that even Biblical? And for the last time, social justice is NOT social holiness. John Wesley never said anything about social justice; he wanted us to be holy!

No. I’m not putting these words in your mouth. But this is absolutely the kind of grumbling I’ve heard from people before about the distraction of social justice-y-ness that is the reason that United Methodist churches are shrinking while all the Southern Baptist churches around us are growing. Honestly, I am kind of surprised that the second baptismal question got snuck into our membership covenant in the first place. I’d be interested in knowing its origins. Is it a legacy that got grandfathered in from the time when the southern Bible Belt Methodists were split off before like female ordination? I don’t think our General Conference today would approve a baptismal question like that (maybe they wouldn’t approve female clergy if we didn’t already have them).

Here’s another angle on this. What if our decline as a denomination isn’t completely due to our not being Southern Baptist enough? What if it’s partly because the people who fifty years ago would have been inspired by seeing their church as a relevant part of resisting injustice and oppression in the Civil Rights Movement now don’t see United Methodists doing a whole lot that resembles that so they stay home? The point of resisting injustice and oppression is obviously not to attract people. In fact, if we actually started doing it, we would probably lose even more members to the megachurches (that seem to build a fair percentage of their membership off of transfer growth from the mainline at least around here).

Fifty years ago, liberals went to church. Now they’re dropping out like flies. Because church has become a place for conservative middle-class families who want to get back to the good old days of the Eisenhower era. We’ve been living through several decades of backlash against the perceived excesses of the Civil Rights Movement, led primarily by the evangelical tribe I was born into. There are some legitimate reasons for that backlash, but the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater. When my dad went to college at the University of Mississippi, he got involved with the Methodist campus ministry there partly because they were the only Christian group that was willing to associate with the black students who had just been integrated into the student body. Methodism looked very different then than it does today. I’m sure somebody could prove that it wasn’t ever John Wesley’s intention, but Methodists in America have a long legacy of being the social justice people. Prohibitionists, women suffragists, labor activists, freedom riders. That’s who we were.

I’m not saying we should water down the gospel to make it “inoffensive” to those liberals who want all religions to be equal. That’s a totally different issue. We’ve got a couple other baptismal questions that are equally important about repenting of our sin and accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and savior. But it’s worth asking why something that we consider important enough to make it one of the three questions for people who are joining the church doesn’t have any covenantal teeth to it. How are you doing on your resistance against injustice and oppression? I’ll confess that I’m pretty slack about it. I write blogs here and there, but I need to get off my slacktivist butt and actually find out what injustice and oppression require resisting in the neighborhood around me.

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  • Gregory Nelson

    Dear Morgan,

    I rejoice in the internet when I read your blogs. Imagine how much more lonely it was for those in the Methodist Church who fought for civil rights and women’s rights in the past than it is for us today. Today, by the grace of God, we can join hands around the world to continually provide that dynamic tension you are talking about. Isn’t that what a prophet is supposed to do?

    Just shows you that Christ is changing the world as we speak.

    My pastor told me once that prophets make unpopular pastors. That may be true or not. I only know that they are the only true pastors. What, after all, is this thing we do about? It is not about being comfy.

    We need to proclaim it, that Christianity is not a comfy religion. It is better than that. If you want to follow a despised man, best learn to welcome this tension cross, because fighting for those things you talk about always brings people out from under their rocks with nails and a hammer.

    If you want to be comfy, as you know, the only truly peaceful place is the grave. Nobody will argue with you there.

    Our challenge is to reflect God’s true glory to all: that not only is there nothing to be afraid of in living out that part of the Lord’s prayer we like to miss, (“Thy Kingdom come on earth.”) but that such scary work leads to a new living relationship where you encounter His Holy Spirit in flesh and blood. The glory of God is uncovered in the fight against oppression.

    This is not watered-down Christianity. It is what makes Christianity the universal truth. All humanity is called to this new birth, which is not a one-time deal, but a living birth breathed and fleshed out in the battles for social justice.

    It’s good news and bad news depending on where you stand, but it is what it is; when you stop fighting for social justice you stop following Christ.

    And this is not a snarky statement. This is how love acts towards those we argue with. We call our beloved arguers to The Banquet.

    If you are not fighting for social justice you are at the wrong table. You are missing the feast! “Come take your place at the glory table!” is our call. “Christ’s banquet of the Fight for Social Justice is waiting to fill you.” Just as with Christ, the cross we lift in defense of humanity today will not be the end of us, but the birth of us in Him again.

    It is because Christ leads us to the battles for social justice that we know the “Kingdom is at Hand.” How else could those words make any sense at all?

  • Richard Cheek

    As a former Southern Baptist, let me affirm they are losing members for the same reasons. And they don’t have anything even close to that statement in their Confession. They did their best to run all the liberals out during the conservative insurgency. I suspect a lot of them came over to the Methodist churches. I don’t know where they will go if the UMC loses its concern for social justice.

  • Keith Mcilwain

    Morgan, you’re assuming injustice & oppression. What if they don’t exist in this case? The Church doesn’t affirm homosexual behaviors, which are decisions. NT Wright (certainly no fundamentalist) says, “Justice never means ‘treating everybody the same way’, but ‘treating people appropriately’, which involves making distinctions between different people and situations. Justice has never meant ‘the right to give active expression to any and every sexual desire’.”

    Given that definition (which seems as good as any I’ve read), the Church is not unjust toward those who choose behavior deemed “incompatible with Christian teaching.” If there’s any oppression, perhaps it’s self-inflicted.

    What we CAN do is offer grace & help lead ALL persons – regardless of what sins in which they are engaged – to penitence & new life. That doesn’t seem very unjust or oppressive to me; quite the opposite.


    • Random Former Methodist Reader

      Gay marriage isn’t about wanting “the right to give active expression to any and every sexual desire” any more than straight marriage is about wanting “the right to give active expression to any and every sexual desire.” If two people of the same gender are wanting to get married, I can guarantee that there’s much more to that relationship than sex.

  • Dan Guy

    if it’s partly because the people who fifty years ago would have been
    inspired by seeing their church as a relevant part of resisting
    injustice and oppression in the Civil Rights Movement now don’t see
    United Methodists doing a whole lot that resembles that so they stay

    I have heard this said, more or less, within the Catholic Church, especially with regard to LGBT outreach. What seems to be the case, though, is that increasing the focus on social justice and embracing — not simply accepting — practices contrary to Church teaching does not win liberal hearts and keep those people coming. While it works initially, they quickly fall away anyway, while the more conservative elements have now been alienated. Conversely, those religious communities which follow Church teaching are growing.

    I guess we all just have to preach the Gospel as we understand it, and hope that God’s love will soften hearts and allow us to bring them to Him. The growth rate of a congregation is not a reliable indicator of the goodness or badness of its fruit, I think, as tempting as it is to take it as such.