Some Thoughts about the Upcoming United Methodist General Conference 2016, or Why This Church Should Just Give In and Die Already

Not all that long ago, a band of conservatives within the United Methodist Church were floating around the idea of an “amicable separation” over the issue of ordaining or marrying LGBTQ+ individuals. The majority response among moderate and liberal Methodists was a resounding ‘no’ favoring unity above all else and citing that Methodists should agree to disagree but remain in communion with one another. Since then, a few silly ideas have popped up. Chief among them included a suggested change in polity which would have allowed Conferences or even churches to determine for themselves what stance they would take on social issues rather than a larger body making that determination for everyone. Therefore, instead of an “amicable separation” of just two theological factions within the church, this silly idea would result in hundreds of new churches leaving nothing “united” to what it means to be a “United Methodist.”

In the meantime, the New York Annual Conference, among other northern conferences, have forged ahead in an effort to uphold equality. Many pastors, as well as a Bishop, are actively marrying gay couples against the current doctrine of the church. While I applaud their efforts and think they are doing the right thing personally, I also find it incredibly disingenuous to willfully disregard church doctrine while simultaneously claiming that you favor “unity.” In that sense, I think the liberal end of the church is a bit two-faced; at least have the dignity to acknowledge that you favor a schism and are moving ahead with the new direction the church should be and will ultimately take. Don’t cower behind the lie of “unity” while acting in discord.

Personally, I’m not in favor of unity at all. If the issue at stake was merely equal rights for gay couples or ordaining gay pastors, then I might still be arguing that this is something Methodists could, prayerfully, work through. But the issue is an entire worldview whereby, too often, those who stand against gay rights, are spouting the same conservative one-liners that – in addition to being homophobic – are also harmful to just about any minority position or person you can imagine. This is often referred to as “intersectionality,” or the notion that all forms of oppression are interconnected. That is, systems of injustice often stem from the same roots and can’t be discussed singularly. I’ve always considered it a shame that gay rights, for example, became the singular issue that nearly split the Methodist church, when it could easily be argued that the church should have split years ago over the conservative position that “poor people are lazy,” a position that’s as racist as it is a slap in the face to those facing financial hardship in a country that rewards the rich and punishes the poor. Of course, no legislative position claiming a disdain for the poor was part of the Discipline, which explains why it never became a major church issue, but certainly, such a degrading attitude remains deeply ingrained into the Methodist system, especially in the Southern states where bigotry is more blatant (though not necessarily more prevalent) than the North.

Suffice to say, I do not understand the disdain for schism. Jesus himself talks about not wasting our time on people who won’t see eye-to-eye. The Methodist Church came into existence solely because of multiple schisms. Good can, then, come from “amicable separation” (though I think referring to it as “amicable” is also disingenuous when the division is as heated as it is currently). So, too, reconciliation can be a beautiful thing when the time is right. If you claim to uphold the good news that Christ is risen but forget or ignore circumstances of the broken body that lead to his resurrection, why bother calling yourself a Christian? Work through the inevitable of our brokenness rather than constantly shunning it. Fear of schism hinges on fears that a resurrected church can’t come to fruition, and as I’ve said elsewhere, it hinges on structural and financial fears that a church schism would make it impossible for the Methodist system to continue. Frankly, though, financial collapse may be good for a church that’s busy building or renovating unnecessary structures and housing bishops in million-dollar mansions rather than doing the work of God. Perhaps a broken Methodist Church is precisely what could birth a new spiritual awakening in America. Think of the Methodists who, in the wake of their understandable frustration with the pitiful state of this feckless church, have returned to either Anglican or Episcopal churches. The Wesley brothers, the founders of Methodism, would be pleased. After all, they never wanted a Methodist church to exist in the first place. Perhaps being reconciled to our Mother Church is but one step in the right direction of leaving behind what’s already dead and rotten. At least, that’s my ultimate hope for this Church and for this year’s General Conference.

A Full Picture, or the time a Moroccan tried to bomb the U.S. Capitol but was in no way representative of Morocco

One of the major goals of the Peace Corps, if not also one of the sole reasons for its existence, is simply to educate folks back home about the countries we live and work in during our two-year tenure.  If I had ended up in Peace Corps Eastern Caribbean like I was supposed to, I can’t imagine how I would’ve managed to connect that to something that deeply mattered to me: “Surf was great today and got an awesome tan; sleeping in hammock now.”   I mean, I ‘d have to have a Peace Corps Twitter or something, because I just wouldn’t need a blog.  Actually, that’s not true one bit.  I’m sure I’d find a way to brood on the Eastern Caribbean the same way I do on life here in Morocco.

Yet, somehow, getting the message of my experience back home would be an entirely different animal.  Since when did you meet anyone who was bigoted toward St. Kitts?  Or, on the flip side, when was the last time someone from the Caribbean tried to bomb the U.S. Capitol?   When I opened up the CNN page and saw that a Moroccan was arrested for plotting a dirty bomb attack on America, my heart sank.  Just another story in the continuing narrative that says that Arabs hate the West, a narrative that seems to often imply that the West should somehow return that hate and deal with it in no other way.  To read that the person in question, specifically, was a Moroccan was just all the more troubling to me.

Over Christmas, I went to visit Greta Frensley’s 7th grade Geography classes to talk about my experience in Morocco.  On Valentine’s Day, over eighteen letters showed up in the mail from her students thanking me and telling me how wonderful Morocco sounded.  One girl wrote, “Some day when I am a famous singer I will visit Morocco.”   Another student wrote, “I was so excited I told my grandparents Salaamu Alaykum and Wa-alaykum salaam.  My sister looked at me aquiredly like Im crazy or something.  My grandpa got interested in the words I told him.”  You read something like that, and there’s just no better confirmation that I’m getting a positive message home.  I mean, there were kids going home and speaking Arabic to their parents, and they were excited about that!  That’s a big step forward for me, and it’s by far the most important work I can do.

And then something like this happens.  Something that questions the validity of everything I had to say.  How many parents will take note of that or will ask their kid in Greta’s class, “Morocco?!  Wasn’t that the country you were saying you thought was great at the beginning of January?”  Some of us work really hard to deliver a positive and honest message about our experience.  I hate, I really hate, to think that message could be tainted by what a handful of bad apples can manage to accomplish thanks to outlandish media coverage or even simply to the human mind’s inability to process that “Moroccan” doesn’t equate with Morocco.   [I think it’s telling, by the way, that this man had been in America for twelve years, and I can’t help but wonder whether what “radicalized” him was his time in Morocco or if it was his time in America?  I wonder how he was treated Stateside?   On some level, it doesn’t matter, because no matter how harshly he may have been treated, these kinds of actions aren’t justified.  And yet, we can’t just assume this is as simple as someone hating America for no reason at all.  We can’t assume in a “war” where hate spawns hate, America is somehow spotless and perfect.  We’re not responsible for changing them.  We’re responsible for changing us.  And that’s exactly where we’ve gotten this whole “war on terrorism” so mixed up.]

Today, I bought coffee for my friend  Youssef.  He’s been begging me for months to come out to his town of Belsfrat, about thirty minutes north of me, and I just haven’t yet had the time to go visit him.  But he’s been a good friend.  We chatted for awhile about religion and politics, and at one point even talked about the importance of respecting and loving one another despite our differences.  He was even telling me about a friend of his who is pursuing a Masters degree in interfaith dialogue between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism here in Morocco.  To go from a conversation like that, filled with kindheartedness and honesty, to reading a story that will likely only breed hate is a good way to sum up every blog I’ve ever written praising Islam or the Arab world and also why I find it so incredibly important to make sure that people are getting the full picture.

Because CNN is not going to tell you about me and Youssef chatting as friends over coffee.  CNN won’t tell you about my landlord insisting that I have soup with him every time I see him.  CNN has no interest in stories of love or hospitality from a country where those things are abundant.  That’s my job.  And I’m here to tell you, CNN isn’t giving you the full picture.  And Moroccans do not hate America.  Or as I said on Facebook, “this ‘Moroccan’ man in absolutely no way reflects the views of Morocco toward America.  Yes, there are tensions; yes, it stems from the ongoing, unfortunate saga where hate just butts up against more hate, but the Moroccan people I’ve met are, in general, kind-hearted, loving people far more hospitable than most of the Tennesseans I know.   There are ‘bad apples’ in every culture, so please, God, let’s not let this continue to feed the narrative of hate between our two cultures.”

On Being Diverse

Went back to Fes.  This time, it was because I was the sole white guy invited to participate in a “diversity panel.”  Who knew white people, with our Starbucks Coffee and moleskin notebooks, could be diverse?  Especially us white males.  You’d think because we’re the pinnacle of patriarchy, the privileged majority, that we should have nothing to contribute to, well, the idea of diversity.

I’m being a little cheeky, I admit.  I was actually invited to the panel to speak on religion as someone with a Masters degree on the subject.  But I was just as welcome there as someone who is white and male as I was because of my background in religion.

In America, we don’t think of  being white as a “diversity.”  Being white doesn’t make you different, because it’s the norm.  But the “norm” shifts depending on location.  And in Morocco, white is anything but normal.  Walking down the street in a town where you may be the only white person some people, especially children, have ever seen, you’re automatically a bit of a freak show.  Or are made to feel like it.  That’s not to say that we’re always harassed for being different, but being different and always feeling different highlight you in a way that can be incredibly uncomfortable.  But that’s not really saying much that’s new.  It’s just a perspective I wish I could share with a lot of people back home in the States, because it really puts the conversation we have in America about race into a different context.

Case in point, I think we’ve come to think of “racism” in America as equivalent to a hate crime, as if to say it’s not really racism unless someone is hurt and the reason they were hurt is blatantly related to their race.  Or at the very least, racism has become something suggestive of only hate or violence.  I remember at Vanderbilt, someone saying that they could handle racism in Tennessee because it was so blatant.  If someone didn’t like you because of your race, they were more likely to say so out loud, and it was easy to dismiss or ignore those comments, because the person was so clearly a bigot that you didn’t even have to take them seriously.  But in the north, the comments were often less blatant.  Little subtleties that would place people into a stereotype or cause them to stand out, or comments born out of suspicion, distrust, or misunderstandings rather than blatant hatred – that those things were still “racist.”  Things that single a person out, even if unintentionally so.

And now that I have this new perspective, one that makes me the minority, I have to say: I understand exactly where that sentiment comes from.  And I’ve experienced it for myself.  The constant staring or people hissing at me.  I chased after and shamed a kid yesterday because he kept following me and hissing.  When his brother saw what happened and heard me say, “I’m not a dog; shame on you for hissing at me,” he started hitting him and yelling, “Shame on you” over and over.  I just walked away.

Some volunteers have it much worse than me: barking, whistling, sexual comments to girls, comments for not being Muslim, and the list goes on and on.  Sometimes, people refuse to believe that Indian- or Asian-American volunteers could also be American.  To the point that they can get called liars or have to prove their identities with their passport.  I know of one volunteer who, even after showing his passport, was unable to convince a hotel owner that he was an American, because he looked like a Moroccan.

And of course, that’s another demographic that’s difficult for me to wrap my head around.  Some of the volunteers at the diversity panel discussed what it was like going from being in the minority in America, where they always felt like they stood out to suddenly being invisible as the majority, because they looked Moroccan.  One volunteer mentioned that he would hear about himself when he was having tea with people or at a store – “Oh, I heard there’s an American in town,” someone might say.  And so, in the process of suddenly blending in, there’s this strange dichotomy these volunteers face as they can or must play the role of being both majority and minority.  Sometimes, blending in was preferable, where they would even prefer not to speak so as to keep a low profile.  At other times, it’s frustrating, because their identity is snatched from them, and they must argue just to get people to believe that they are American or that they came here from America to make a positive impact on this place.  It can certainly make getting work done difficult.

I suppose one of the big take-away moments in listening to those volunteers was the realization that privilege is not solely in the hands of the majority.  Being in the role of the “minority” can have incredible advantages.  And being in the role of the majority can create all kinds of difficulties.  Case in point, I recall being at a Christian-Jewish dialogue a few years back, and someone remarked, “I know what it means for me to be Jewish; that identity is clear to me.  But I have no idea what it means to be white.”  Being white in a pluralistic society where non-Caucasians have clearly defined cultures, histories, and traditions can easily lead to a cultural identity crisis.  Think over the years of all the different, primarily Caucasian, social groups that pop up from goth or emo to hipster or scene – all examples of a culture-less, white society trying desperately to define itself, because, outside of being privileged as the majority, “being white” lacks any strong identity.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying, “Man, those poor white people got it so rough.”  But, at the very least, this experience has sort of helped me realize that the conversation about race is a little messy.

I also don’t mean to imply, as I may have above, that Moroccans are racist.  That kind of generalization wouldn’t be fair.  But I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t felt or seen the effects of racism in this country.  As many, many volunteers do – some more than others.  And it should come as no surprise considering just how rare and different we are here.  Such is the nature of any developing country, perhaps.

So, I guess being diverse is actually one of the few things we all have in common.  We’ve got this difficult struggle of having to figure out not just how to be okay with our differences but perhaps more importantly, to allow our differences and our misunderstandings about them, to foster an honest curiosity that asks questions of others respectfully rather than assuming we already know enough.

The Face of Religion, or When Can We Just Get Along?

There are plenty of arguments in the States over whether or not America is a “Christian nation.”  Time to settle that argument: America is definitely a Christian nation.  Comparatively speaking, anyhow.

When you uproot yourself and move to a world where you wouldn’t even know where to begin looking for a Christian church (Morocco is 98% Islamic), those Nashville, Tennessee steeples in Green Hills that outnumber Starbucks by a billion begin to make America seem not so pluralistic after all (sorry, Diana Eck).  Everything in life is perspective, I guess.

As for me, let’s face it, this is a subject that I seem to obsess over, something that absolutely fascinates me.  What else would you expect from someone who studied Christianity for ten years and then moved to the Arab world?  Of course, it’s a touchy subject, religion.  It always is, I suppose, but it’s especially touchy here where Christian missionaries have given Christians a bit of a bad reputation.  No surprises there.

I’m not a missionary and have no desire to be one.  Ever.  I don’t think converting people saves them; instead, it creates more havoc and hatred than promoting love.  There’s a lot of good “mission” work going on out there, but all too often, the focus is on conversion rather than love, and that’s where I lose interest.  I work for the United States government and adhere firmly to the First Amendment’s Separation of Church and State.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy talking and thinking about religion, and while the idea of forcing or coercing your religion on someone is a repulsive concept to me, I don’t hide the fact that I’m Christian; it’s a basic part of who I am.  I don’t see the point in running away from who I am just because a few bad apples gave Christianity a bad name.  Not as long as I can at least try to redeem it or remind folks that forgiveness is at the heart of nearly every “religion.”  That seems like a good start, at least.  I mean, if we’re all hypocrites (and generally, I think we are and I’ll expound on that in a bit), doesn’t it make more sense to practice forgiveness of hypocrisy rather than hatred of hypocrites?  Or hatred of anybody?

I’ve encountered a few Americans here who are like a college freshman suddenly discovering the world, unable to think for themselves and simply swallowing every word their arrogant professors feed them.  Instead of critically engaging Moroccan culture or asking meaningful questions about this new world around them and how they fit into it, they treat it like a fad – some new, short-lived fashion statement that screams, “I don’t know who I am, but being anti-what-I-was or anti-what-you-are makes sense to me.”

Sadly, that’s how people treat their beliefs and values, too.  Too often, I’ve encountered pop culture Christians who jumped on the bandwagon of jamming to the latest contemporary beats without the slightest idea of what the lyrics actually mean (and sometimes the ironic, complete hatred for those “rigid, old, traditional folks”).  On the other end of the spectrum lies the atheist who criticizes those Christians who are, you know, “judgmental bigots,” and somehow, she thinks she’s got Christianity and everything else figured out, but in reality, she’s become exactly what she hated and doesn’t even realize it.  This is what really gets under my skin: when someone practices a faith (or lack thereof) so blindly that they continuously walk into walls or when someone else gauges out his own eyes because he thinks he should do away with the way he used to view the world.  Neither of those options are helpful to anyone.  We end up blind either way.

Then again, maybe everyone has to be a baby at some point before they can be an adult, so maybe they deserve or have the right to live blindly, at least for awhile.  I just despise extremism in all forms and see it as the real problem with the world.  I mean, how many times have I said that already?  My friend Melissa recently posted some of her own thoughts about that very thing.  You can read them here.  I digress.

I’m slowly getting to the real reason I’m writing this.

Eid 1Today, I walked around in a market full of sheep and goats, and every family will  buy one for the upcoming celebration Eid El Kibir, or Eid El Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice).  Next to Ramadan, Wednesday’s feast is kind of a big deal, a huge celebration and one of the most significant holidays in Islam.  This bedtime story is one you already know if you have had any encounter with Christianity at all.  God tells Abraham (the father of many nations, indeed) to slaughter his son as a divine sacrifice, a kind of test of his faithfulness.  His faith is exemplified in his willingness to do so (and in his son’s willingness in the Qur’an), but at the last minute, God provides a ram in the place of Ishmael (yeah, yeah, I know, it’s Isaac in Christianity).  As a result, come Wednesday, each family slaughters a “ram” in remembrance and thankfulness for the ram that “takes the place” of Ishmael.

It’s kind of like Easter in a way, what with Easter being the time we remember when Jesus “takes our place” sacrificing himself on the Cross, but somehow, Easter eggs, peeps, and green plastic grass just don’t really compare with actually slaughtering a ram.  With the feast quickly approaching, it’s forced me to think a lot about our two countries, our two religions, churches and mosques, and what’s at the heart of what we say we believe.

“The heart of what we say we believe” is an intentional way of phrasing that, because there’s always, always a gap between what we say and what we do.  We often try to bridge that gap by changing what we say rather than changing what we do.  That is, we justify our actions in light of what we really want out of life.  And rarely do we actually take the time to be self-aware enough to even try to understand why we make these kinds of decisions.

I think lately, especially, of all the bickering that happens in the church back home, some of which is so severe that good people are essentially forced out of their jobs or families no longer feel welcome or can even experience God in the very place where the doors are supposedly open and hospitality is supposedly “radical.”  Yeah right.  This has been on my mind with my parent’s recent decision to stop attending their own church and the church where I grew up.  And it’s a good example of that gap between who we say we are and how that differs from how we actually treat each other (and in the case of my home church, those things are clearly the absolute opposite of one another, sadly).  So part of me deeply wants to explore and understand that gap between what we do and what we really believe.

What I’ll see with my eyes next week is a sheep or goat who will be slaughtered and then eaten (I’m not sure yet if I’ll be served the entire head on a plate of rice or couscous or whatever, but fair warning now – if you don’t want to see that, don’t look at my pictures next week).  What I can’t really see firsthand or ever begin to fully comprehend is how this act of slaughtering the ram will or will not impact the things my family believes about Islam.  Is it just a tradition to slaughter the animal, or does my family here experience something deeper, fully engaged in the metaphor for sacrifice and thanksgiving?  If so, how much and what does it really mean to them?

I can’t say what it means for them, and I suppose, at the end of the day, none of us can fully understand the hearts of even the closest people in our lives – family, friends, etc.  Sometimes, we don’t even understand our own hearts.  We just have to trust that what we do we do with the best intentions and that those intentions will have a lasting, meaningful impact on our lives and the lives of those around us.  Perhaps the greatest sacrifice we ever make is the one to take that leap of faith to love and trust other people more than we love and trust ourselves.  This year, as I watch the ram sacrificed for the first time, I’ll be thankful that I am here experiencing that and experiencing a little something beyond the rather small world I used to know.  Maybe I’ll try a little harder to practice the things I want earnestly to preach, to love and serve beyond myself and to take the scary risk to trust that everything works out okay in the end.