Can we have a scorn-free General Conference?

Can we have a scorn-free General Conference? April 27, 2016

One of my favorite parishioners at my last church was a Tea Party Republican. He would share quotes with me from Robert E. Lee. In his basement, he had displays of rifles from the confederacy. He was also my dentist. His dental office was decorated with beautiful artwork. He would play classical music while we were getting our teeth cleaned. It was the most relaxing dental experience I’ve ever had. He was the opposite of a utilitarian. He appreciated beauty. He gave me a gift certificate once to the most expensive restaurant I’ve ever eaten at. It was a lovely experience. He came to several small groups that I led. There are few people that I’ve met who enjoyed learning as much he did.

Sometimes he would go on a tear about political correctness. He was very concerned about militant Islam. Whenever he talked about these hot-button topics, I noticed that there was always something valid within what he was saying even if I didn’t agree with it completely. So I would affirm the part that I felt was valid. I honestly felt honored that he thought he was safe venting to me. Those were some of my most sacred and delicate pastoral conversations. I’m not sure whether he pretended not to notice how progressive I was or if he didn’t have a clue. In any case, it didn’t create an obstacle in our pastoral relationship. He was so affirming and encouraging after every sermon that I preached. It honestly meant more to hear that he liked a sermon than a lot of other people knowing how differently he saw the world than me.

Some United Methodist bloggers are up in arms about an idea called Rule 44 to create personal conversation circles at General Conference as the means of discussion before voting on our sexuality-related proposals. The reason I support Rule 44 is because I believe the most toxic thing about our great conflict in United Methodism is how impersonal it is. I want to believe that if delegates actually sat with each other and learned each other’s stories, then they might be able to have the kind of rapport I had with my favorite parishioner. It wouldn’t necessarily mean that they would come to a consensus or agreeable compromise. But the one thing Rule 44 would do is to put a limit on the amount of scorn that both sides throw at each other. This scorn is a much greater threat to our covenant than anything else, even if the Book of Discipline doesn’t have a paragraph addressing parody twitter accounts, character assassination, and other forms of public mockery utilized by United Methodist pastors and leaders.

It’s one thing to say I think what you’re doing is harmful or sinful. It should never be forbidden to speak the truth as you understand it. But it’s another thing to ridicule, belittle, and mock. Scorn is the fruit of Satan. It’s easy to be scornful when the enemy we’re faced with is “political correctness run amok” or “typical white male arrogance.” It’s a lot harder when we have to look another human being in the face. I’ve certainly engaged in my share of scorn. I would probably do more of it if I were as clever and funny as the people who make fun of me. But I’m willing to put those ways aside as a spiritual discipline at least for the next several weeks.

I’m not a delegate to General Conference, but I will be in Portland for a few days. While I do have some book obligations, the main thing I want to do is to find a way to pray together with people who are on the other side of the United Methodist debate. I would pray with them simply that God would reveal his will in a way that it would be made clear to all and that we would all be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. It may be that we need to split into two different denominations in order to most effectively evangelize two very different constituencies of people. But if that decision ever gets made, I want it to be the result of prayerful discernment rather than the fallout of scorn and hatred.

To me, the most important outcome of this General Conference is for the two sides to leave with less rage against the other side than they enter with. We don’t need to drop our convictions in order to eschew cynical oversimplified explanations for where our opponents are actually coming from. If you see scorn coming from any United Methodist voice in the next few weeks (including my own), repudiate it firmly and lovingly. We must take collective responsibility for casting Satan out of our midst. We can speak truth without demonizing and ridiculing our opponents. Let’s have a scorn-free General Conference.

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