Unity with Schism, a Mea Culpa

I have made abundantly clear in social media – sometimes to people’s frustration and often too harshly – that I am in favor of schism for the United Methodist Church. I’ve held that view in part because I believe the church to have been hijacked by lobbyists who have pushed political agendas of the far right into a mainline denomination. I’ve held that view in part because even the progressives I usually agree with seem more interested in maintaining dying structures under the guise of ‘unity’ than they do in pursuing a justice that’s as swift as I’d like for it to be. And I’ve held that view in part because I, like many of you, am tired of being hurt by church and am tired of seeing those I care for be hurt by it – and that extends beyond social issues and as much into everyday brokenness and bureaucracy of the Church. It’s something every institution does to us; I’m just burnt out with this one.

This morning, however, I was challenged by an email from, strangely enough, a priest – a Franciscan Friar of the Atonement – who is the former Vatican Representative to the World Council of Churches and has been a part of the envoy for the UN’s peace process between Israel and Palestine. These are his words, and I found them worth sharing:

“Hi Philip, I see the United Methodist Church is going through the inevitable east-west, north-south tensions that so many churches have been experiencing recently. You are not alone. When the Catholic Church had the recent synod of the family, the Africans were opposed to any changes while the Europeans were in favor of them. Sometimes I wonder if we might have a too restrictive notion of what church unity means, something derived from the European experience of kings and emperors, where everything -and I do mean everything – gets “standardized.” The church(es) of the New Testament and post-Apostolic times were far more diverse, often experiencing conflicts between one church and another. Yet it wasn’t until quite later that a juridical notion of unity – as opposed to the more organic notion of communion – began to take over. Unfortunately we live in a world of zero sum everything where compromise is a forgotten art and virtue.”

The good padres’ email forced me to raise important questions about what unity really is, and as someone who can break bread with Muslims and Christians and Jews and Hindus and Atheists and who longs for the unity of one world, it seems bizarre that I’d no longer wish to break bread with parts of my own spiritual ‘family.’ It’s more complicated, I guess, when we are tasked to do more than merely break bread together but also live under the same roof. Especially when our time under that roof has involved intense emotional and sometimes physical harm.

I know I’ve contributed to that harm, and for that I’m sorry. I know I’ve played into the zero sum game at times and that doing so is, quite literally, asking an entire continent, if not hemisphere, in places the West once colonized to adhere again to our values. We don’t acknowledge this enough when we get on our social media, social issues high horses; we don’t acknowledge just how complicated these “east-west, north-south tensions” are, but if we wish to remain united in earnest, cultural sacrifices become inevitable. And while I’m inclined to say as a Westerner that equality as a moral good and human right should trump culture and tradition, I’m not sure I’m in a position to say that; I’m not sure any of us privileged Westerners are in a position to tell Africans, for example, once more what they should do. But I’m also not willing to sacrifice my values, either. And therein lies the problem.

So, we may find ourselves sometimes needing to part ways, temporarily. We may find that sacrificing our cultural values is something we just can’t do. But perhaps we can “part ways” and yet still be united? That is, the unity I hope for may indeed be schismatic – but less like warring schism and more like brothers and sisters who throw temper tantrums all day long yet still love one another when it comes to it. Can we act differently, function under different rules and still seriously call ourselves one institution? What rules are so sacred to us that they are uncompromising? And what rules can we allow certain conferences or churches to fudge on? In the past, I’ve claimed that this kind of unity renders our faith meaningless, that to stand in solidarity with all viewpoints is to have none of our own. But the good friar’s email reminded me that, maybe, it’s okay to differentiate between the rules sacred to our unified identity and the rules sacred to our diversity.

The good friar’s email reminded me that on some level, unity is a lie. Anyone who doubts this should attend a United Methodist Church in Tennessee and another in New York. Geographical differences govern us more than our holy texts do, because the way we interpret them will always be influenced by our social location. Perhaps it shouldn’t work that way, but our cultural and experiential differences will always run much deeper than disciplines and dogmas no one reads. And yet, those geographical differences, as well as the dogmas, can be honored so long as we can decide what essence of our identity must be retained. That is what the United Methodist General Conference must decide now: what is non-negotiable to call ourselves one entity. And then, the hard question this church is facing won’t be whether or not we should split but whether, if we really believe in unity, we should not also reunite with the Episcopal Church, and from there, the Catholics? After all, if, indeed, this church splits, that is not the end, and to believe as much with such intense fervor is to deny everything Christians claim to believe about resurrection and reconciliation. But reconciliation should scare you if you’re committed to unity: it might make us all Roman Catholic again.

As for me, for now, I will continue attending a United Methodist church in New Jersey where I live. I am not member of the United Methodist Church, having forgone my membership in 2012. I don’t at this point intend to rejoin. Nor will I continue to attend this church simply because it’s United Methodist. Instead, I attend because of its harmony as a church with over 20 countries represented, one of the few exciting aspects of attending a church ten miles from New York City. I’ll attend because it’s where I’m building meaningful relationship here at the moment. And I’ll attend because in a church so diverse, I might just learn something about how to live together when we disagree as much as we do.

Some Thoughts for a Good Friday

The world has become ugly and dark. Terrorist groups slaughter. The wealthy grow wealthier as the poor remain poor. The planet itself is slowly but surely dying off, we’re told. Our most precious resources are grown increasingly scarce. Our politicians follow the money instead of the heart. And for most of us that’s just the stuff we read about but don’t actually endure. What we do endure, we are stricken by our own ugliness: a broken friendship or lost love, self-doubt and indecision, self-righteous certainty in the places we actually should’ve been doubting, a fear of others or of self that cripples us or grows our hatred. These are the voices shouting at us from our computer screens and televisions to our parents and loved ones to our friends and enemies to our innermost thoughts plaguing us, weighing us down. It is a world without silence, these days, without respite. Instead, today’s world is one of loud extremes. There, on the fringes, voices from a small handful have pushed the moderate many to their own extreme – a world now of false dichotomies no one seems to notice – and the cycle only repeats. Honest concern with nuanced perspectives are lost to sound bites and memes that appeal instead to our emotions. Ideologies are dwindled down to 140-character barking – all context and concern washed out by our desire for the quick-and-the-easy.

And yet, perhaps, seventy years ago in the midst of world war, the same could have been said: the world was dark and ugly then, too. Another seventy or so before that, and we were a country divided – family against family – an unquestionably ugly time in our history. Trace back through humanity’s short breath on this “pale blue dot,” and it’s always there: fear and hatred and war and the loud, powerful few who long for control. We were bombarded, then as now, just by a different medium. Is it that we think we’re special that the world is just now unbearably bad? Is the fact – if it’s a fact – that it’s “always been this way” meant to reassure us with hope that we are not alone in our suffering or sink us into some despairing fatalism that there is no cure for the human condition but death?

Maybe that’s why I relate so strongly to Good Friday. It is not the story of resurrection. Don’t be fooled by the fact that we think we know the ending. Easter morning is not yet come. It is instead a story of wondering, of questioning. It’s a story of seemingly intense abandonment, of scattering, of hiding away in denial. And it’s the story of that which we inevitably face – the death of those we love and of our own end. In a sense, it’s a story still being told, repeated daily on our screens and in our heads and in our exchanges. That same ugliness – from Rome to Flanders Field to Normandy Beach to modern Syria and Iraq to Capitol Hill and into every major corporation – it does not go away.

And yet in the midst of that, the hope we do manage to conjure up as human beings – when we can – is the best kind of hope. Because we don’t yet know how it ends, just that it will. And to say that there is hope in the face of this unending uncertainty that so surrounds us is to participate in something near miraculous: Against all the odds, against our own history, against our guaranteed nature, even against our guaranteed deaths or in spite of them, we conjure up sometimes something good and try to live into our best selves no matter what the next day or hour or minute could bring or brought before it. For all the voices shouting and pulling and drowning out our common space, it’s on that note, when that happens – that hopeful harmony – that “resurrection” arrives, that something wholly good is able to conquer our cynicism. It’s when we whistle walking through the dark house or hum a beloved tune to calm ourselves – hours before the choir exclaims any joy at all. And so, we wonder, can we bring nuance to the conversation, silence to the constant noise of the day’s desire to pull us in a thousand directions, peace to a world in terror, sustenance to a planet hungry for new life, wealth free of want to the wealthy and trust again in our leaders? Judging by our history, the answer is no, probably not. But we’ll hope anyway, be our best selves anyway, drip our drop in the bucket anyhow, and if we fail at those great endeavors, we’ll still have succeeded, somehow in the most important way possible. Happy Good Friday to you and yours.

A Call for Friendship across Political Divides

It’s been an election season that’s fired me up. I’ve always tried to be politically-savvy, but I can’t say before this year, I’ve ever been politically-involved. Lately, though, I’ve gotten my feet wet in a local campaign that’s, honestly, gotten a little ugly. The father of one of my camp friends is running as the Democrat for District 27 here in West Tennessee, a district that was redrawn by Republicans with the hope of ensuring that more rural counties would guarantee no Democrat could get elected again. What they didn’t count on was a conservative Democrat who had either lived, worked, or gone to school in almost all of the counties that made up the District.

Perhaps because they got scared that Randy Lamb would dash their hopes of taking back District 27, the Republican Party began a series of negative ads comparing Lamb to Barack Obama and as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” One Union University student wrote into the Jackson Sun, the local paper, saying, “One pamphlet in particular I found to be reprehensible. Included in this campaign ad is a poorly Photoshopped image of Mr. Lamb depicted as a shepherd. He is herding a herd of black rams. The wording reads, ‘What Randy Lamb’s herding Tennessee doesn’t want any part of.’ This image obviously has racial allusions. It is subtle, but direct.”

That kind of thing is the kind of thing that can get me really fired up. Joining the campaign was something I probably would’ve done regardless of ads with racial overtones, but the negative campaigning made it all the more important to me to get a positive word out about Randy Lamb, his focus on public education instead of vouchers, on expanding Medicaid, and on bringing jobs to West Tennessee. While phone banking for Randy, I found myself telling voters: “Please, please, if you get anything in the mail that says something awful about Randy, ignore it. He really is a good guy.”

In the midst of negative campaigns, it’s really hard not to retort with something equally as negative, and I haven’t succeeded at it personally. It’s easy to dismiss Randy’s opponent, Ed Jackson, or the Republican Party in West Tennessee (who ran the negative ads Jackson said on Facebook he doesn’t like) as racists or as bigots. It’s hard to find the balance between the need to call out an injustice when you feel someone you believe in has been wronged while also dishing out the kind of grace that trusts most people are or want to be good and do the right thing. It seems like we too-often like to lump the injustices and those who commit them as one-in-the-same. But maybe it’s not that simple. Maybe most of us are just trying to get by, trying to do what we believe is right, and even where and when that’s misguided, there’s something to be said for our trying.

On Thursday, I stood in the sun at the polling center holding a sign for both the Lamb campaign and for “Vote No on Amendment 1,” an amendment that would give the Tennessee legislature the power to ban abortions for victims of rape, incest, or women with medical complications. Standing next to me for the nearly five hours I was there was none other than Ed Jackson himself and a few of his supporters. Naturally, we struck up friendly conversation. I talked about my time in the Peace Corps and my love for traveling. Ed and I discussed some of our favorite countries we’d visited, his son’s good work teaching English in an industrial town in China. We talked about the Boy Scouts, both of us Eagle Scouts. Turned out, Ed had been a part of a troop that was formed at my home church years ago, and we knew some of the same folks in scouting, an organization we both deeply admired given the impact it had on us growing up. There was something humanizing about standing there carrying on friendly conversation with someone whose worldview so greatly differs from my own. I offered him water. He offered sunscreen – which I later regretted not accepting – and lunch. Behind the social media anger, behind the negative television ads, behind the things we think we know that are right, even if they are right, are real people all too easily forgotten as “real” when viewed from the false veil of computer and television screens.

I don’t agree with Ed Jackson’s policies. In fact, I’d argue that a lot of Republican policies demean the poor with a lack of empathy that could hardly be considered “Christian.” In my short time working with the Lamb campaign, I’ve overheard a Republican or two say the same of us Democrats: how could those liberals be for policies that are so unchristian? But what I don’t doubt, having met him, is that – like Randy Lamb, like all of us – Ed Jackson is just trying to do what he thinks is right. And there’s hope in that. Because there’s common ground to be found there.

Last night over dinner with friends, it was said (to paraphrase) that “when compromise became viewed as a weakness in America, everybody lost.” Though I’m stuck on believing my way is the right way, I’d like to think that Ed Jackson’s encounter with me was an encounter he walked away from thinking, “Maybe we can work together,” because the way forward in a world where political differences seem to have become battlegrounds is to re-establish relationships that are cordial, civil, and most importantly, recognize and reiterate that we must trust that we’re all trying to figure it out, how to make this town, this city, this state, this country just a tiny bit better. I cast my vote for Randy Lamb, and I’d do so again and again, but if I were heading to the Tennessee State Senate and Ed Jackson happened to be there, I’d find a way to work with him. And I believe I could. But to be able to do so requires something of us all, on both sides of the aisle, and it’s going to have to start with getting out from behind the screen, meeting each other face-to-face, and being committed to friendly conversation.

When Democracy Doesn’t Work, Pick a Different Democracy?

With Congress at a 13% approval rating, it’s probably fair to say that the great democratic experiment is suffering just a little. Recent decisions by the Supreme Court striking down the giving limits for campaign finance just about guarantees that government decisions are now in the hands of the highest bidder if they weren’t before. It doesn’t take a mathematician to realize that politicians are likely to feel more obligated to “the people” with money than they are to those without. Some comedians (and realists) have even joked that Congressional representatives should be forced to wear logos belonging to their corporate sponsors like NASCAR drivers. Or, at least, a lot of politically-minded folks certainly feel that way.

I like thinking about these sorts of things – y’know, what’s wrong with the country and how we should fix it. But as just some average Joe in little ole Tennessee, I sometimes think, “Why even bother worrying with this? It’s not like any arguments or solutions I could think of would ever make it to Capitol Hill.” But it’s still fun to think about; I even enjoy reading a good Facebook argument here or there where an art major and a biology student engage in civil bitter discourse employing their knowledge of the Constitution they gained from that one college class they took where they spent all of a week talking about American politics. On the one hand, it’s silly and unproductive if not also depressing to watch (or be a part of). On the other hand, the fact that we live in a country where we’re afforded the freedoms to engage in this level of banter is something we all too-often take for granted. And I also think there’s something to be said for the way discourse can impact not so much the people we’re arguing with but, instead, ourselves. I’ll try to put that another way –

Though I’ve got a pretty ugly history to the contrary, I generally try not to engage in Facebook politics these days unless it’s to provide an interesting fact or to shed light on a theological concept, since my education is situated within that realm. But my goal isn’t to change anyone’s mind the way it once was. Instead, I’m more interested in changing my own mind. I want to be challenged and pushed, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that my goal is selfish in that way. Rather than pretending like I could change the world with my words, when that’s actually silly, I at least know I can change myself if I’m open to listen and hear out the perspectives of others. That’s education to me, and I want my education to be a lifelong experience, not something restricted to a few golden days at Wabash or Vanderbilt. In that sense, I love a good Facebook argument. And I suppose I’d like to think our whole world would be better off if we argued with that goal in mind – the goal to change ourselves instead of others, but seeing as how my wishful thinking contradicts my goal to change only myself, it’s probably best not to get caught up in that kind of meta reflection.

So, not too long ago, while complaining about the state of the union to family in what amounted to one of those arguments where none of us were actually going to change anything, I was surprised when my Dad offhandedly made a few remarks about how he’d make the country better. It was surprising because I can’t think of a single time where Dad made a staunchly political statement at all, so when he just sort of quipped about a different system of government entirely, I wasn’t expecting such a, well, brilliant concept: his basic idea was to randomly appoint everyday citizens who would be required to serve in legislatures much the way citizens are required to serve on jury duty.

Call it legislative duty. I’ve been turning this idea over in my head for a while now, and I think it’s actually more democratic than our current republic. It would need some tweaking to deter corruption, but with the right checks-and-balances in place, it might just work. That is, you’d have to make sure the selections happened randomly but that they would be representative of state demographics (though I think it would become somewhat obvious if they were not). You’d also have to have something in place to make sure that people would perform their assigned duties and were capable of fulfilling their obligations to the state (via something akin voir dire), though as a friend of mine pointed out, “if you relegated current congressional salaries towards compensation for this, people would actually want to do it.” And if it were something people wanted to do, it would increase the likelihood that it would be done well. It would also do away with political party alliances (or at least extreme ones) and increase the likelihood that people were voting their conscience in the best interests of their fellow citizens. You could keep, say, the Senate, and let the new group replace the House of Representatives. The executive branch could be responsible for selecting representatives with the judicial branch responsible for confirming them to either two or four-year terms.

I mean, it would never happen. But in a day and age where money decides policy, it was just nice to think about something different for a change. It was nice to be challenged by a totally different idea in the midst of what is usually just silly, harsh arguments where everybody’s right and everybody’s wrong.

Speaking, Hearing, and a little humility in humanizing others

I reopened Facebook for the first time in over a year. I shut it down to work on a novel, but I won’t say I wasn’t excited to escape the vitriol that overwhelms our public forum in an incredibly divided America. I’d been sick of seeing it; I’d also been guilty of it, too.

Five minutes into scrolling through those blue-and-white pages, it was like being reminded, “Oh yeah – this is the same place I left behind,” though probably a bit more cluttered and starting to feel kind of gunky, like Myspace before Facebook came along. What happened to the old minimalist Facebook of yesteryear?

One of the first posts I saw was a Christian friend demanding drug testing before people can receive food stamps. I thought about posting, “Yeah! Jesus didn’t care for sinners! Take their food away!” But I knew my sarcasm was too harsh; it wouldn’t be heard, and it prompted the very vitriol I’d grown sick of. There’d be something hypocritical about posting that. Even the truth can be hypocritical depending on how it’s delivered.

I thought maybe instead I’d give a light nudge: “I wonder what a Christian response should be to this issue?” Challenge with a question; that’s a bit Socratic and so there’s a good to that, right? But something feels icky to me the way Socrates “stings like a gadfly; births like a midwife.” While that’s a powerful way to teach and an emotive way to learn, something about it is manipulative. It reminds me of a teacher I had once who I loved to death, but I always thought it strange that after tearing apart a student’s paper, she would hand that student a stuffed animal to cry into saying, “You’ll do better next time.” If it’s manipulative but it works, can it still be moral? Behind my “light nudge,” a push to ask, “What would Jesus do,” I was armed with more questions intended to guide and manipulate: Did ancient Rome – in the first century – fail to feed the hungry? Were Jesus and his disciples wrong to glean? Is drug addiction a disease or is it just an illegal action? If it were a disease, would addicts be victims? If addicts were victims, what does it mean to take their food away for a disease they have? Is it right to take away food from a hungry child whose mother is a victim of her addiction? All good points hiding behind those questions, but that didn’t seem like the right way to go.

A third option was to say nothing. Let’s all just be agreeable, can’t we? We can sit around and just sing kumbaya. We can agree to disagree, and then the whole world will get along, wars will end, and everything will be rainbows and unicorns – finally! Without being flippant, I do think there’s a decent argument to be made in recognizing that we won’t change our world over a Facebook conversation or an internet meme – or a blog. I wholeheartedly agree with that. And yet to simply be agreeable, to only surround ourselves with those of like minds – our own convenient filter bubbles – while seething underneath about the folks who live in bubbles so different from our own, and we aren’t being true to ourselves in that. Or to others.

So what do we do? If our goal is to convince others we’re right or to just agree to disagree, either of those seem to be the easy way out to me. In our divisive society, it can be tempting to stir the pot. In our increasingly relativistic society, it can be tempting to throw our hands up and say it doesn’t matter. Regardless of which route we take, whether we’re selling truth or saying there isn’t any, maybe the best approach is to let go – just a little – of whichever end of the spectrum we might find ourselves in. What happens if we start to ask, how do we maintain being true to our own perspective but also willing to let go of that perspective just enough to hear the mind of someone else? I don’t have an answer to that question. But maybe those are the kinds questions we should ask – the ones we don’t think we have an answer to already.

And so, to me, this was never really about whether the government should provide food stamps to drug abusers. It was more about a need to humanize the folks who might think that way. They’re the very same folks who I’ve known to be incredibly loving and, in some ways, far more charitable than me. Their opinion doesn’t rob them of that good – or make me better than them. I hope, not only throughout social media, but in all walks of life, I’d seek to humanize everybody a little, especially the folks I so staunchly disagree with. But I also hope others will learn to do the same. There’s a time and place to speak and be heard, though I suspect the latter is always the greater good. But there’s a place for the former, too, and I recognize it can be really difficult to determine how to walk that line. Like I said, I don’t know how we do that, how best to go about it; I just think trying is a message we’ve gotta promote – to seed a little bit of humility into ourselves. I’ll start with me first.

The Terror of the Shabaab, or why we’re our own worst enemies

My job when I worked in Morocco for two years with the Peace Corps was to work with the shabaab, that is the “youth” of Morocco. I worked out of a youth center, or Dar Shabaab (literally: youth house), which was akin something like the YMCA or the Boys & Girls Club. In North Africa, “youth” is defined as those folks who are between the ages of, say, their tweens to about thirty years-old or so (or until a person is married). So, it’s a little different from the way we define it in America.

If you keep up with the news, you already know this Arabic word. In the wake of some terrorist attacks, most recently those at a Kenyan mall, everyone is talking about an Al-Qaeda-affiliated Somali terrorist group called “Al Shabaab.” There’s a few things about this that deeply bother me.

The first is the way the media pronounces the definitive article “al” before the word “shabaab.” This shows a lack of understanding of Arabic. There are two types of letters in the Arabic alphabet – moon and sun letters. When you begin a word with a moon letter, you pronounce the “al” before the letter for a definitive article. However, with sun letters, like the “sh,” or sheen, in “shabaab,” the sun letter absorbs the “al” such that you don’t pronounce it. So, for some words, like “Al Qaeda,” the definitive article is pronounced before the root word, whilst for others it is not. This video takes you through which letters are sun letters (shamsiya letters) and which are moon (qamirya letters).

Perhaps even more disconcerting is the unfortunate reality that this terrorist group has chosen a catch-all term with a positive connotation and shoved it out into the world as though it’s all-encompassing of Muslim “youth.” This terminology is incredibly damaging to the Arab world (which I’m distinguishing from “Muslim world” here to refer to countries where Arabic is dominate, since “shabaab” is an Arabic word). I don’t think it’s good to allow these groups to get away with using this kind of terminology. It’s happened before; the word “taliban” really just means “the students.” It’s a little ridiculous that, after 9/11, we declared war on “the students” and today the world is fighting “the youth.” Can you imagine if the Nazi party had been called “the Peaceful Ones”? We probably would have changed their name.

Which is what I would advocate here. Instead of calling them “Al Shabaab,” we need new terminology. I’d argue for “the Cowards”: Al Jubna’a. By the way, similar to the Shabaab, you don’t pronounce the definitive article “al,” so it would just be “the Jubna’a” if transliterated into English.

What is truly scary about the Jubna’a, though, is their make-up: there were American teens among the members of the attackers on the mall in Kenya. The presumed leader of the group is a British female known as “the white widow.” There were also other Britons, Canadians, Somalis, Kenyans, and strangely enough, folks from Finland all involved in this terrorist cell. So, what’s that mean? The world’s new terrorists are, increasingly, radicalized westerners. 

After a Moroccan was jailed for planning an attack on the US Capitol building in early 2012, I wrote in my blog at the time,

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.

Now that radicalized westerners are the new rage among terrorist cells, I still stand by those words. These cowards, the Jubna’a, didn’t turn to terrorism overnight. This is a situation where the bullied became the bully. The way our society treats the Muslim community is deeply disconcerting and worrisome, and while our actions don’t justify theirs, it’s time for us to take a long, hard look at ourselves, at the way we really “love one another.” It’s time to ask who the cowards really are.