Friday, November 22, 2013

Call It What It Is

I'm going to say it: The United Methodist Church is at the brink of another schism. The first schism came just before the Civil War, supposedly because of slavery. This one will come supposedly because of homosexuality. The underlying issue in both cases is fear.

I want to start with statistics that need to be shared even though we don't want to talk about them. A study released in April broke down support for same-sex marriage by state. At the beginning of the Civil War there were 34 states. 15 were slave states. Today, of those 34 states the 11 lowest in support of same-sex marriage are former slave states. The only outliers are two that didn't secede (Delaware and Maryland), Florida, and Virginia.

Now, back to the cause of the split: fear. In his fantastic book A Disease in the Public Mind, Thomas Fleming persuasively argues that the primary motivator of the Civil War was fear. He notes that even in the slave states there were many, many people who found slavery abhorrent. They knew it was wrong. They just didn't know how to end it. Some people thought slaves should be sent back to Africa (which is how Liberia was founded), some people thought they should be set free at once, but most thought they should be set free very gradually if at all because they feared what would happen when the slaves were set free. They had a reason for this - slave rebellions had taken place in other regions and, in some cases, the former slaves had killed their masters. In what is now Haiti former slaves killed every white person on the island. They were also fearful of the economic implications. Slaves were an asset to the economy that many didn't feel could be relinquished.

If the southern states knew that there was a way to free slaves without losing their lives or livelihood, the Civil War may never have happened. But fear got the best of them.

So what are the concerns about allowing same-sex marriage in the United States? Obviously there are theological concerns. But we have widely different theological beliefs in the United Methodist Church. We are not having church trials over those! We are having church trials only over this one issue! When was the last time that you heard of a pastor on trial for re-baptizing? Here's a great list of 25 things we could be having trials for. But we don't have trials for any of these. The concern over same-sex marriage (and I would argue ordination as well) has to be something else.

So what are the other reasons?
"We'll continue to decline as a denomination." (we're pretty good at that already. Besides, in the Episcopal Church less than 10% of churches left since approving of gay pastors.)
"We will no longer stand for anything" (yes, because allowing same-sex marriage will eliminate the entire Book of Discipline)
"I can't in good conscious marry two men or two women" (that's fear based too - pastors already can choose who to marry or not marry
"It is a threat to the institution of marriage" (can you say that with a straight face with the divorce rate as high as it is?)
"It imposes bad morals on society" (I assume this is because it forces you into same-sex marriage even if you're straight)
"We stop believing in the Bible" (this will come to a surprise to people like me who believe in the Bible and believe that it does not say what you think it says)
"We'll surrender to culture" (we already evidenced by the fact that our conferences vote the same way as the states that they are in, by our rush to criticize and demonize each other, by our refusal to have real dialogue, and by giving in to fear instead of standing firm for love)

And some unspoken fears:
"I don't want a gay pastor" (switch to a different UMC - plenty of people are already doing that)
"I don't want gay people in my church" (too late. Also reminds me of an African American pastor friend at a predominantly white church where one member was concerned that it would be become a "black church." In all fairness the pastor and spouse did double the size of the African American population in that church.)

So we're having our own civil war. Because we're afraid. Because of fear, even though it is obvious to every thinking person that we are not of one mind, a fairly narrow majority will refuse to admit the obvious and not allow a statement acknowledging our division. Because of fear we are willing to split on this one issue alone.

So we can split. It might even be a good idea. But let's understand what the real reason is. We are afraid.