What if the options weren’t Stay or Leave?


Around 3:00 in the morning on Tuesday I awoke from another nightmare about the Church falling apart around me. And, on top of that, I found that I had a song stuck in my head.

“Should I stay or should I go now?
Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go, there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double
So come on and let me know
Should I stay or should I go?”

If you didn’t just sing that in your head, we probably can’t be friends. But still, stick around because there is a broader point.

I must have been reflecting on comments from the Rev. Andy Bryan reflecting on the future of the church. Representing the fifth generation of the Bryan family to be elected to the General Conference, Andy (a supporter of the One Church plan) was asked whether he would be leaving the Church after this meeting. He responded that he would stay and continue to work to reform the Church.

While centrists and many progressives in the United Methodist Church have long maintained hopes of finding a middle ground that will allow the Church to stay together, it seems less and less possible to find a footing where this is possible. This became abundantly clear at the Special General Conference, where plans to “agree to disagree”  were only able to garner roughly 46% of the vote. In contrast the “traditionalist” plan which consolidates power in the Church on the conservative side of the political spectrum, and “gracious exit” plans garnered the support of roughly 53% of representatives.

Of course those “conservative” plans face further problems. Despite years to formulate and multiple attempts to revise, conservatives have not been able to find a formula for either the “traditional” plan or the “gracious exit” options that can pass constitutional muster in the Church. This means that they would need a super-majority to pass these plans.

In short, most centrists and progressives don’t want to leave, and if only given the option of an exit or continued fight many will stay and fight. Most conservatives want a clean conservative takeover of the Church which “allows” centrists and progressives to exit, or want the option of exiting themselves. But at this point no one can get what they want.

In short, the centrist plan needs at least 51% to pass, and the centrists don’t have the votes. Because it would require changing the constitution, the conservatives plans need at least 66% to pass, and the conservatives don’t have the votes.

So, neither side is powerful enough to resolve the stand-off in their favor, and neither wants to live under the conditions the other requires. But what if there were another option?

Up to this point, when thinking of schism, most have thought in terms of one side taking the Church and the other side taking a “gracious exit.” This makes sense, especially since we usually conceive of our conflict as a power struggle over THE Church. But what if we gave up on that way of thinking about the conflict. What if the options weren’t takeover or leave, bur rather taking up with one of two new Churches? The Open Methodist Church and The Conservative Methodist Church, or whatever …

If you could come up with a plan to create two new denominations, one conservative and one liberal, then it might be possible to pass the legislation for this plan with the support of enough conservatives and progressives to get a super-majority. This, it seems, is what is going to be necessary to come up with a realistic way out of the cul-de-sac we have entered. Of course, to do this, the plan would need to be EQUITABLE. You couldn’t have winners and losers. It could not be a plan that is perceived as a takeover plus gracious exit. It would require giving up on the competition to “win” the Church.

Coming up with such a plan would not be easy. It would not happen quickly. Like any negotiations to end a war, it would have to happen in a ceasefire. The implementation of the plan will inevitably cause further suffering, especially for the silent center of the Church. And, given the bar of 66% to pass, failure is always a possibility.

But what are the other options at this point? Despite having the majority, conservatives don’t have the means to enforce their vision of the Church. And even if they did, there are plenty of progressives who are perfectly willing to be ecclesial martyrs. And despite wanting to fight on to transform the Church, centrists and progressives only have the growth of African/conservative representation in the General Conference to look forward to. Would it not be better to have a Methodist Church that could affirm homosexuals now?

So, let there be two Methodist Churches. Two groups with rights to the Cross and Flames. Let us move past forcing the options of staying or going.

Keep the Stable in Your Nativity!


Recently a scholarly argument about the interpretation of the Gospel of Luke has leaked into the blogosphere. At issue is whether the Gospel suggests that Jesus was born in a stable.

The traditional reading of Luke includes Mary and Joseph traveling away from home, to Bethlehem, where Joseph’s ancestors lived, to be registered in a census for Roman taxation. When they arrive they find that the inn there is full, and are forced to take refuge in the stable outside. Jesus is born in the stable, surrounded by animals, laid in a manger for his crib. He is then visited by shepherds from the fields who have been alerted of his birth by a host of angels.

If one reads the gospel carefully, however, one will note problems with this reading. Why would Rome require people to travel away from home to be registered for taxation purposes? If you are going to tax people, you want their home addresses! Knowing where their ancestors were from is not particularly helpful. There are also no animals mentioned in the text. The tradition of their presence is probably developed out of a reading of Isaiah 1:3 (“The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.”) as talking about Jesus.

But, for some time, Biblical scholars have had further reservations about the text. The word “kataluo,” usually translated as “inn” (Luke 1:7) is actually more general in reference, often meaning “place or room.” See, for instance Luke 22:11 where the disciples ask about a “guest room” in which to hold their dinner (the last supper). The word for “room” there is the same as the word that has traditionally been translated as “inn” in Luke. And, it is possible to translate the definite article “the” in “the inn” as a possessive. So the correct translation might be “there was no space in THEIR ROOM.”

So what would it mean if this is the correct translation. Well, it may entirely change the way the story goes. It has been suggested that, if Bethlehem was an ancestral home for Joseph, his relatives there would have provided him shelter there. Some other interpreters have gone even further, suggesting that Joseph might not have been living in Nazereth, but may only have gone there to pick up his Mary, to whom he was betrothed. So traveling to Bethlehem would have been coming back home. In which case he would definitely have had some established family place of residence.

Now, in that society there was a tradition, when a new generation was establishing a family, to build a new room onto the family house to hold them. So, it is possible that Joseph and Mary came into Bethlehem and took shelter in either a guest room, or a “marriage room” added onto a bigger house. In either case, if Luke is claiming that “there was no space in THEIR ROOM” the Gospel is not suggesting that they were rejected from an inn.

Further, houses in that area and time were often constructed so that animals had access to a common room in the house. And that room may have had food troughs available for the animals: mangers. So, it seems likely that instead of going outside to a stable, Mary and Joseph have only moved into the common area of the house, where there is more room for giving birth than in the small room that they have been given.

In the light of similar arguments to the above, Ian Thomas suggests:

In the Christmas story, Jesus is not sad and lonely, some distance away in the stable, needing our sympathy. He is in the midst of the family, and all the visiting relations, right in the thick of it and demanding our attention. This should fundamentally change our approach to enacting and preaching on the nativity.

I appreciate Thomas’ careful attention to the text, and he has articulated some of the reasons he finds this reading of the nativity salutary. I don’t want to challenge the potential usefulness of this reading. But I disagree with his conclusion that this is the best way to read Luke.

Why? Because I think it misses Luke’s theological point. Reading Luke’s narrative as suggesting a birth surrounded by supportive family is no more suggested by the text than the idea that Jesus is born surrounded by animals. If Luke had wanted us to imagine a broader familial context for the birth, he certainly could have explicitly noted it, and he does not.

The emphasis on the shape of Palestinian housing itself is fascinating. But one cannot show that Luke meant one thing rather than another by looking at the way homes were actually laid out. It is not like Luke was concerned primarily with accurately representing local architecture. In fact, at several points in Luke’s gospel he seems unclear on the exact geography of Palestine. So, to support the claim that Luke’s story must reflect an accurate picture of houses from the area would at least require showing that he knew about what the houses were like.*

This reflects a larger problem with Thomas’ exegesis, as he seems to think that by interpreting Luke correctly he is going to find “the Christmas story.” There is no one Christmas story. Matthew tells one Christmas story that focuses on revealing Jesus as the King of Kings and the new and improved Moses. Luke tells a different story that has, as I shall note below, a focus on Jesus coming to the poor. There is, in early extra-canonical literature, yet another Christmas story which tells of Jesus being born in a cave, which was extremely influential in early Christianity, and doubtless inspired the current location of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Each of these stories plays an important part in the Christian tradition, and it would be reductive to focus on one of them as “the” story of the nativity rather than looking to each one for the distinctive element it contributes to our knowledge of the good news of Jesus Christ.

Further, Thomas uses the fact that animals are mentioned in Isaiah as a way of suggesting that the presence of animals has simply been read into the text by tradition. But that seems to me to underestimate the tradition of interpretation. Luke often refers to Old Testament passages elliptically. And Isaiah was a text with which early Christians were intimately familiar. It seems extremely likely that in referring to a manger, and using the specific word here, Luke is intentionally echoing Isaiah 1:3. So the connection is not a mistake, but provides the proper context for reading Luke’s claims.

In fact, the idea that Luke is suggesting a link to Isiah’s claim fits perfectly with Luke’s theology. The claim that “Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (Isaiah 1:3) is a perfect parallel for Jesus’ claim in Luke that “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town.” (Luke 4:24).

In fact, read in the context of Luke’s gospel, the warm and cozy reading of the nativity suggested by Thomas seems distinctly out of place. Luke constantly emphasizes that Jesus comes “to bring good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18, notably echoing Isaiah). Unlike the Gospel of Matthew, which has Jesus visited by wise men bearing gifts for a King, Luke focuses on the visitation by shepherds of the field. It is not the rich of the world that attend to Jesus birth, but the lowly.

This is, of course, not an argument against the possibility that Luke’s gospel may mean to place Jesus birth in more of a domestic setting than the traditional reading suggests. The argument has certainly raised significant questions about how to translate Luke.

But in terms of Luke’s theological point, it is entirely fitting to see the story as one of a couple who is exists without power, forced to travel a long distance, to find no room at the end of their travels. It fits in Luke’s Gospel to think of Jesus as impoverished in his lack of an appropriate crib. Jesus is, in Luke’s gospel, the King who has come to those who are poor, and who is unafraid to dwell with them making their poverty his own. And, if reading the word “kataluo” differently leads us to forget that and attempt to provide a more “family friendly” and less alienating version of the story, better that we leave the traditional reading alone.

So, this Christmas, set up your nativity with a stable. Surround your baby Jesus with smelly, dirty animals, and the poor shepherds. And celebrate Jesus who refuses to accept an easy birth in order to come to the poor and oppressed. That, I have no doubt, would be fine with the author of Luke.


*Thomas does cite Luke 13:15 to support the idea that this kind of house is mentioned in Luke’s gospel. Perhaps he is right. But the passage seems to me more ambiguous about the exact location it is referencing than Thomas suggests.

Jeff Sessions and the Failure of United Methodist Courage

“There is a need to draw a line between the leaders responsible and the people like me forced to serve as mere instruments in the hands of the leaders.” Adolph Eichmann

“A political action is not personal conduct when the political officer is carrying out official policy.” Dr. Debora Bishop, District Superintendent, UMC.

As one of those who signed a letter charging Attorney General Jeff Sessions with violating the standards of the United Methodist Church, I never expected the charges to result in any significant censure of Mr. Sessions.

This is not because the charges were not serious. Sessions is implicated in the systematic abuse of thousands of children who were forcibly separated from their parents as they entered the United States. It’s hard to know exactly how many children were separated, because the administration did not keep accurate records. Separation was carried out without any plans for the reunification of families, and many children might never be reunited with their parents.

This policy is not only immoral, it is clearly incompatible with the standards of the United Methodist Church. In the words of Bishop Kenneth Carter, president of The United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops, the policy was, and is “incompatible with Scripture and Christian tradition.” (See also Here)

At the same time, I understand the realities of a Church that includes members who span the political spectrum. The first level of review for the charges would happen in Session’s home district and Annual Conference, in the Deep South where they have special reason not to alienate conservatives. And I also know that there has never been a case of charges against a mere member of The United Methodist Church that has risen to the level of revoking membership, or even a judicial review beyond the local level.

There are, within United Methodism release valves for the pressures that this kind of case raises. Bishops and District Superintendents are given a great deal of flexibility for dealing with charges in their own regions. They have the ability to reach “just resolutions” with those who have been charged. These agreements don’t even necessarily require any punishment. This provides a useful mechanism for situations where the Church wants to uphold its own rules while allowing for grace and the specifics around each case.

In the time since the family separation policy collapsed under criticism, Sessions has (dubiously) claimed that family separation was never the intent of the policy. A just resolution might have been achieved via an articulation of his “revised” position on the policy. Or it might have resulted in an agreement for Sessions to lead a Sunday School class on the concept of “the foreigner” in the Bible. Really, the possibilities are endless. And they don’t go half as far as the actions of Roman Catholic priests who in the past have denied communion to politicians who they see as having lost their way.

Sessions may have wished to avoid the press around any just resolutions process, even if the result was merely a request to teach Sunday school. But, if a Church is unable to stand for principle in the face of grave injustice perpetrated by its own members, even when standing for principle demands so little, it makes a mockery of the Church’s claim to moral authority.

Unfortunately, this is the position that The United Methodist Church now occupies. This is because, instead of even pursuing a just resolution to the charges, Dr. Debora Bishop, Session’s District Superintendent, dismissed the charges. In her letter explaining the situation, Dr. Bishop reports that she did this with the support of Bishop David Graves and the Cabinet of the Alabama-West Florida Annual conference.

The justification for the dismissal of charges is remarkable.

“A political action is not personal conduct when the political officer is carrying out official policy. In this matter, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was carrying out the official policy of the President and/or The United States Department of Justice. It was not an individual act. I believe that this type of conduct is not covered by the chargeable offense provisions of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2016 for laypersons. Therefore, your complaint is dismissed.”

This statement represents a mischaracterization of Sessions’ role is relation to the government and policy, is morally problematic, and theologically confused.


As Attorney General, by federal statutory law Sessions is the head of the Department of Justice. He does not simply carry out the policies of this Department, he SETS the policies of the department. Further, though the Attorney General is appointed and can be dismissed by the President, the oath of office does not bind the office to the policies of the present administration. Rather, like most public servants, the Attorney General promises to defend the Constitution of the United States. Indeed, we would not want an Attorney General who felt obligation to the President above all other standards. Part of the Attorney General’s job includes overseeing investigations of inappropriate conduct on the part of the executive. So the Attorney General should never be treated as a mere implementer of Presidential policy.

In the current case, far from simply implementing a policy that was given to him, Sessions was a vocal proponent of the policy. He called critics of the policy a “lunatic fringe” and suggested that they all (the United Methodist Bishops presumably included) lived in gated communities with their own walls to protect them. Opponents of the policy were, according to Sessions hypocrites. Nothing in Sessions’ appointed position required him to make such slanderous statements in defense of this unjust policy.

Nor did Sessions stop there. He went so far as to offer a theological justification for the policy. In the middle of June, Sessions cited “the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.” In response theologians and Biblical scholars have pointed out that this use of Romans 13 takes the passage out of context and deploys it in the same way that it was used to justify unjust regimes from slavery in the United States to Apartheid in South Africa and the rule of the Hitler in Germany.

We can return to this theological point in a moment, but for present it is important to note that the claim that Sessions should have been, or was merely implementing a policy given to him by others is wrongheaded. This was a policy that Sessions advocated for, one he helped craft, and one he went to Machiavellian extremes to defend.


At this point we have clarified that the Attorney General is not obligated by oath or law to carry out whatever policy he or she is given by the President or Justice department. But we should go further. Even if Sessions were simply implementing policy, this would not mean that there was nothing of the “individual” left in the act. There is a broader, and incredibly significant moral principle at stake in the proposed justification: the principle of basic human responsibility for one’s actions.

No doubt, there are situations where our moral responsibility is limited by our situation in relation to higher authorities. We follow instructions when we did not know the character or outcomes of the actions we were instructed to do. We trust in authorities and institutions that may mislead us. But regardless of our position in a ladder of authority we are never free to entirely set aside our moral responsibility for our actions.

When U.S. soldiers in Mỹ Lai Vietnam massacred innocent civilians, it did not morally excuse them if they had been ordered by their platoon leader to participate. When Nazi guards oversaw the holocaust, it did not excuse them that their superiors had ordered them to shepherd Jews into the gas chambers. As human beings, we can never be morally obligated to knowingly carry out injustice, no matter who commands it.

In other words, there can be no absolute distinction between “political acts” and “personal conduct” and at no point does our action become so subsumed under worldly authority that it ceases to be an “individual act.” And certainly “political officers” do not forfeit personal responsibility every time they carry out an official policy.

The principle applies as much to government officials as to soldiers on the ground, if not more so. Adolph Eichmann, who oversaw the logistics of the holocaust, attempted to defend himself with the claim that he was merely following Hitler’s orders. The defense was rightly rejected during his trial and in his later appeals for clemency.

But the justification for dismissing charges in the United Methodist Church against Jeff Sessions are almost an exact parallel of the Eichmann defense. Note: I am not comparing what Sessions did to what Eichmann did, or comparing the immigration policies of the Trump Administration with the policies of Hitler. I am pointing out that the justification for dismissing charges against Sessions is the same as the failed justification used by Eichmann and other Nazi officers after the war.

The implication is that if The United Methodist Church existed in Germany during the Holocaust, and if the Church’s justification for dismissing the charges against Sessions is viable, then it would have been impossible to challenge an Adolph Eichmann’s good standing as a member of the Church. Such a conclusion is pure fecklessness.


Finally, there are deep theological problems with Dr. Bishop’s response. That there is no explicit theology in her letter is unfortunately usual for the United Methodist tradition, but there is certainly an implicit theology, and it is exactly the kind of theology that Sessions was properly condemned for deploying himself.

When Sessions cited Romans 13, he did so in a way that wrote a blank check for authoritarian government. Particular governments, on his reading, are ordained by God. As such, challenging the government, breaking any law produced by proper legal procedure, is tantamount to rebellion against God.

Even as this reading of Romans is designed to give the state absolute power, it is also designed to excuse all individuals under the state from moral responsibility. If the particular government, and particular laws have the character of God’s commands, then the citizen is obligated to carry out those laws even if the individual recognizes them to be unjust or immoral. And, the individual can hardly be held accountable for doing something unjust if she or he was under divine command to do so. As long as the citizen keeps her or his head down and follows the current order, the individual is responsible for nothing.

At times, Lutheran theology has strayed dangerously close to this kind of view of government. With Luther’s dour view of the human conscience and his emphasis on worldly authority as executing God’s will in secular matters, there were points in some versions of Lutheranism where it became hard to think through to the possibility of resistance against worldly authorities. And, it made uniquely Lutheran sense for government representatives to claim that they were merely following the orders that they were given. It is no mistake that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrung his hands over Romans 13 before eventually joining a plot to kill Hitler. And it is no mistake that Eichmann found the “I was given orders” defense so compelling himself. Both were steeped in German Lutheranism.

But Wesleyanism, and particularly American Methodism, has never obligated itself to this heresy. Wesley agreed with Luther on the seriousness of original sin, but unlike Luther, Wesley emphasized that the overflowing grace of God returned to each person her or his own personal conscience. And, though Wesley himself was a Tory, American Methodism has been unremittingly democratic both in its own polity and in its expectations of secular government.

In 2004, the United Methodist Church adopted a Resolution that includes specific comments on the interpretation of Romans 13.

Romans 13 “in no way equates God and government, on the contrary there is no way to reconcile God’s purpose for government with a government that acts contrary to God’s will. There are many examples where governments pervert this God-given authority. It is in situations such as this where the prophetic voice of the church best honors its responsibility to the state, and its faithfulness to the gospel, by calling the state to accountability. Christians must become the conscience of government, in the best sense of the prophetic tradition.”

The justification for rejecting the charges against Sessions did not go as far as Sessions in endorsing the unquestioned authority of the established government. Sessions suggested that all citizens should be obedient to the established authority. The justification for dismissing charges concerns only “political officers.” But surely it is exactly these political officers who we need most to be able to “become the conscience of government” in times when the government embraces cruel and unjust policies.

In the present case, Sessions not only failed to manifest such conscience, but participated in crafting and defending the cruel and unjust policies.

The United Methodist Church failed to even signal that he should be held accountable.

Children of Light and Children of Darkness: A UMC Story.


“The children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light” – Luke 16:8

With this bible verse, Reinhold Niebuhr begins his work The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. Niebuhr’s theme in the work is that the good are often naive where the evil are shrewd. Those who wish to be good assume the best of their opponents and plan accordingly. They avoid the deployment of force against their opponents, assuming that the better angels of human nature will inevitably prevail. In contrast, those who lack such goodness do not play by such rules. They grasp power when it is available in order to lord it over the good. Unfortunately, because of this naivete of the good and the shrewdness of the evil, the good is often defeated.

Niebuhr’s account perfectly fits the state of The United Methodist Church today. Starting decades ago, there was pressure in The United Methodist Church for change to the language regarding the status of homosexuality. As happened more broadly in America, acceptance of homosexuality was spreading rapidly in the Church. Conservatives, the children of darkness, recognized this. So they devised a strategy to maintain the official condemnation of homosexuality in the Church. Every General Conference, conservative church leaders would threaten to break from the church if the conservative stance were not upheld.

Being children of light, the centrists and liberals in the Church were sensitive to this threat. They valued the unity of the Church and the good that was constantly being done through the whole of the church together. As such, every year there would be a come to Jesus moment where unity was affirmed and the centrists and liberals would put off the move toward justice for homosexuals one more round in order to keep the church together.

Many liberals and centrists were shocked at the 2016 General Conference when appeals to unity and the bonds of the Church did not have the power that they once did. What had changed was not the appeals, but to whom the appeals were oriented. With the inclusion of 1.4 million members from Ivory Coast, power in the General Conference swung from the liberal to the conservative end of the Church. Now, beyond just maintaining the language condemning homosexuality, conservatives wanted more power to carry out an inquisition against those who disagreed with them on the issue.

Liberals and centrists pointed out that this move would tear the church apart, and a last-minute motion was offered to allow a study commission look at the options for the future. We are now at the end of that process, but nothing has changed. With power on the conservative side of the Church, appeals for unity are no longer meaningful, because they never were to the conservatives. Caught up in their own power, they are willing to eject those they disagree with from the Church in order to defend their delusions of purity.

As it once was, it always is. The children of light refused to use power when they had it assuming that the power of goodness itself would secure victory. They forgot that Christ was crucified and that the assured victory of goodness is found only in the Kingdom. The children of darkness, however have been shrewd in their management of power.

The time draws nigh when the fundamentalists will take over The United Methodist Church, much as they did in The Southern Baptist Church. It is not clear whether it will happen at the 2019 General Conference or soon thereafter, but the children of darkness have made no secret of their plans to dominate the Church. And so long as they have the power, no one should doubt their willingness to use it. That they will crucify Christ again in the process is irrelevant.

Forever Young Forever Old

Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem (recognizing Jerusalem as the capitol of Israel) is going to give rise to violence. This morning a former student asked me to explain why the embassy’s position was so significant. What follows is my response to the question. Hopefully, it will help some make better sense out of what is going on.


The first thing to understand about the place of Jerusalem in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is that the city has a mixture of sacred and secular significance for all groups involved.
In part, arguments about Jerusalem are about territory (the secular concern), but in part they are about deeper issues of identity, religion, etc.

So, imagine that you set a table outside and one of your neighbors took the table. The robbery would be bad enough, but it’s just a table, so you could just get another one, right?

But now imagine that the table had been in your family for generations; that your great grandmother had carved her initials with the initials of your great grandfather under the table while they were dating, etc.

The table now takes on a different kind of significance. It is not easily replaceable or exchangeable.

For everyone involved in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Jerusalem is like your long time family table times a billion.
When goods take on this kind of value, we don’t just worry about physical ownership, but also about symbolism.

So, imagine that the family table belonged to a mother who had two children. Both of her children want the table. When the mother dies, both show up to divide up their mother’s goods. One of the children starts piling her things on the table. Even though there has been no claim about taking the table, the issue is so raw that even placing the goods on the table could easily give rise to a fight about the table.

Jerusalem is like this. Israel claims it as their capital, and Palestine claims that part of the city will be their capital. Israel currently controls all of it except the temple mount (which is the most holy site for both groups). Everyone watches everyone else for any sign that they are moving in a way that symbolizes greater ownership.

To this, we should add the tensions that come about because of other points in the conflict: Israeli’s stealing other Palestinian lands, Palestinians firing rockets into Israel from Gaza, etc. But for present purposes, these issues only aggravate the frustration and distrust that is already at stake in looking at Jerusalem.

Why does the US make a difference?

Well, the US basically props up the Israeli government. It has from very early on in the history of the modern nation. Billions and billions of dollars in foreign aid from the United States flow into Israel. And billions and billions more go in contracts to Israeli businesses.

Everyone else in the world is much more critical of Israel than the US is. After all, Israel is progressively stealing Palestinian land. So, if the US wanted Israel to change its policies, the US could place a GREAT deal of pressure on Israel to do so.

But the US has never ENTIRELY abandoned the Palestinians. We have always in theory stood for a negotiated conclusion to the conflict. Some agreement that would carve up the land so that Israel and Palestine could each have their own lands.

But if the US recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, this represents a change in stance. It is accepting all of Israel’s claims while accepting none of the Palestinian claims. It is a huge symbol saying that we no longer support a negotiated conclusion to the conflict (because we are resolving some of the issues that would have to be negotiated in any peace process).

Basically, we are the ones piling one child’s things on the table.

Without the US supporting a negotiated peace process, the Palestinians don’t have any good options. They could accept absolute defeat and try to live in a state of Apartheid, or they could return to more widespread violent resistance against Israel. Either way, they basically get decimated.

It is at this point that violence starts to look like a good option for large numbers of Palestinians, because their options are so bleak.

This is a location in the world where the United States most needs to manifest wisdom, care and a deep concern for the bending of history toward justice. Our current administration has no capability for any of this. We and the world will pay a dear price for our failure.

The Argument from Disagreement: a response to Steve Rankin

Steven Rankin has recently written his own response to the Uniting Methodist movement.*

In his response, Rankin laments that the Uniting Methodists have located themselves as the moderates in relation to others who are cast as “polarizers.”

Rankin rejects this picture of the current situation:

Not a single traditionalist, conservative (pick your label) I know desires disunity or wants to exclude anyone. Not a single one! But if we can believe virtually anything and be United Methodist, then the name becomes an oxymoron and we dissipate our mission. If unity matters, then beliefs matter, as do boundaries. This point is logically inescapable.

Rankin goes on to relate a story about a conversation with ten fellow clergy members that produced very little in the way of common ground:

After about two hours’ discussion, the only point we could agree on was this on the first Easter morning, something happened. We could not agree that the bodily resurrection of Jesus happened. Just something.

For Rankin, these issues are not simply academic. As he recounts, he himself was cast as a polarizing figure during the time when he was being considered for the position of Bishop in the United Methodist Church.

Let me begin by agreeing with Rankin on a few points. First, there is no doubt that the United Methodist tradition has broadly failed in the area of theological catechism, and I agree with Steve that we need more robust agreements on creedal issues. Second, I have known Steve for some time. He was a mentor of myine during college, and I still value his friendship. I find his self narrative in his post to be entirely on point. He has been a bridge builder in the denomination, and it is unfortunate that members of the Church judged him so unfairly as they did during the time when he was being considered for Bishop.

This said, while reading his post, I found that he did repeat some of the tropes that have been unfortunately polarizing in our current context.

Take, for instance, his claim that: “if we can believe virtually anything and be United Methodist, then the name becomes an oxymoron and we dissipate our mission.” No doubt this is true. But what is this claim doing in a response to the Uniting Methodist movement? Have the Uniting Methodists suggested that United Methodists should be able “to believe virtually anything?” I have reviewed their vision statement, and I don’t find anything like that there. I know several people who are active in the Uniting Methodists movement, and none of them that I know hold such a position.

Unfortunately, this is a trope that I find all too commonly in contemporary discourse from conservatives. I’ll call it the “argument from disagreement.” To combat those who value unity over one or the other particular stance on the ethics of homosexuality, the conservative speaker responds that there really is no unity to defend. We just don’t really agree on anything.

I find this line of argument to be deeply troubling, not only because it is b, based on a premise that is overstated if not outright false, but because in order to defend it, many conservatives are pushed to overlook some of the best parts of their Wesleyan inheritance.

While reading Rankin’s story about the ten clergy gathered in discussion I found myself wanting to ask: did anyone among those ten clergy members disagree that we have a theologically based obligation to care for the poor and oppressed? I am bound to think that there would have been none who disagreed on this, even if they articulated this theological obligation in different ways. You see, one of the best parts of Wesleyanism is that it is consistent in refusing to look away from our social obligations, and its insistence that those obligations are properly theological.

One thing that I have always appreciated about Wesleyan evangelicals is that (unlike some of their Calvinist brethren) they have never shied away from the social dimension of the Gospel. Yet, in the context of the argument from disagreement, their theological position on social justice in inevitably marginalized or obscured to make the point. The effect is to make Wesleyan evangelicalism much more like non-Wesleyan evangelicalism, and to make it match all the more closely with the polarization of evangelicalism that we see in American politics. One of the losses I feel most profoundly in our current crisis is the way that I have witnessed the Gospel narrowed in efforts to make the case that we disagree about everything.

My point here is not to claim that our theologically grounded social obligations are necessarily sufficient to hold us together. Rather, I am using the fact that conservatives tend to obscure this theological common ground to point out a way in which we are allowing polarization on homosexuality to overwhelm everything else.

In the end, we should not make the mistake of looking away from what we are really doing. The issue causing our schism is not theological pluralism, or the reality of the resurrection, or the authority of the Bible. If we were splitting on the basis of understandings of Biblical authority Billy Abraham and Rob Renfroe would be on opposing sides. If we were splitting on the basis of the reality of the resurrection, innumerable “progressives” in the current conflict would suddenly come to appear to be “conservatives.”

We disagree about ONE issue. We disagree about the ethics of homosexuality. Perhaps it is because that is so obviously an insufficient basis for breaking the Church that some feel the need to act as if we were disagreeing on other issues.


*Full disclosure: I have historically supported positions similar to those of the Uniting Methodists, and am sympathetic to the movement. That said, I am in no way associated with Uniting Methodists, and am frankly doubtful that there is hope of unity in the United Methodist Church. I suspect that the question at this point is only how much damage we will do to the body of Christ in the process of our division.

Righteous or Privileged? Why not both?


This week Tina Fey’s guest spot in a SNL episode went viral. It was hilarious, it spoke truth about the administration of Donald Trump, and it also reflected a significant amount of white privilege. For some reason, people are having problems accepting that all of this can go together.

If you haven’t seen the video, I encourage you to go watch it. Not only will that make the rest of this post more meaningful, but its just a really good bit.

In the video, Fey advocates for, and participates in a practice that she labels “sheet caking.” This is the practice of drowning one’s frustration and anger at the current state of racism and governmental malfeasance in a sheet cake made by your local Jewish … or black baker.

After the video spread throughout the interwebs, protest posts started appearing noting that Fey’s approach was, let’s say, not uncontroversial.

There are a couple of components of the criticism here, but most of it comes down to her last lines in the bit: “I really want to say, to encourage all good sane Americans to treat these rallies this weekend like the opening of a thoughtful movie with two female leads; don’t show up. Let these morons scream into the empty air.”

Fey’s example, and her final recommendation, said many black Americans, revealed her own white privileged. These post were followed by a great number of white liberals counter-protesting that Fey was just being funny, and that the critics were missing the point. Comments that I read from white liberals included: “this is why we can’t have funny things,” “this is why Democrats cannot win elections,” and “this is why comedians have stopped doing shows at colleges.”

First, let me agree to a set of things that my white liberal friends have claimed about Tina Fey’s bit. (1) It is hilarious. (2) As comedy often does, it provides a medium for social commentary that has the potential to disrupt standard political discourse. (3) Fey’s attacks on the Trump administration in the bit are witty, sly, and are unflinching in saying what needs to be said about the administration. (4) We cannot expect a comedy routine to provide a realistic political program for reacting to Neo-Nazis marching in the street. To paraphrase Bill Chott, the first rule of comedy is not “always leave ’em with a call to action.

Now, let me share with you a rule of thumb: After the election of Donald Trump, if people of color tell you that there is white privilege someplace PAY ATTENTION!

Raise your hand if a year ago you thought our country was racist enough to elect a white supremacist to the office of President. I have my hand up (ok, I took it back down to type more easily). If you are like me, you underestimated the amount of racism in our country, and it may have to do with the fact that you are not the kind of person who has to face racism on a daily basis.

Now, paying attention requires you to do a couple of things. First, get over the feeling that you have been accused of something. There are points at which the inability to see white privileged can be a moral failure, but set that to the side at this point. So long as you focus on whether you have been accused or even that you feel guilty, it’s not helpful. If you focus on the feeling of accusation, you won’t be open to learn. If you focus on the feeling of guilt, you won’t act. And what we need is learning and acting.

Back to the video. Does the idea of “sheet caking” reflect white privilege? Of course. It’s a joke based on the premise that one could react to the injustice of the Trump campaign and marching Neo-nazis in the same way that a stereotypical teenage (white) girl might react to her boyfriend breaking up with her.

This, however, is not necessarily a critique of the bit. Comedy should make us laugh then think (or both at once). I don’t know to what extent Fey had processed the multiple levels on which “sheet caking” might work comidically, or function to raise questions about how to respond to injustice. She might herself not know. Virtuosos often work by feel rather than by analytical reflection. But there is no reason that a joke can’t simultaneously embody and raise questions about a social situation. See here, the excellent SNL sketch on Black Jeopardy prior to the election.

Note here though, if we accept this way of thinking about the sketch, it SHOULD raise questions about white privilege, especially for people who identify with sheet caking. (And Lord knows that I do.)

But this doesn’t say enough. Frankly, the routine just failed in its last lines. Fey’s mistake is not that she didn’t offer a call to action. It is that her last lines sound like they are a call to action, or rather to inaction: Don’t show up.

A few days after clergy and Charlottsville residents linked arms, literally risked their lives, and stood face to face against Neo-Nazis, this was the wrong way to go. It fit with the “sheet caking” bit, and it was couched in some typically biting satire with the line about female leads in a movie, but it was a bad choice.

But more than that, it’s just the wrong message. It treats our situation as if white nationalists are children acting up for attention, who might change their attitudes if you just don’t give them what they want. But that is not our situation. Our situation is one of prolonged racism which is the de facto reality. The white nationalists rallied to elect Trump and are marching because they fear that we might change the status quo.

So what we need to do is change the status quo. You don’t do this by refusing to pay attention. You do this by confronting. This is why Martin Luther King Jr. advocated non-violence and not non-action.

Unfortunately, too many white people do not recognize this as the nature of the problem. They live their lives blissfully ignorant of the perennial racism that exists, and are only disrupted by the marches. So it seems to them that the marches are the problem. This is the deepest point of white privileged in the sketch.

Does this mean that we should throw the whole thing out? That we should treat Fey as a pariah? No. Of course not. It was for the most part a brilliant piece of comedy with one significant misstep. If we are going to make it through this period in our history, we will need to make room for mistakes, but we will also need to learn from those mistakes. Comedy opens the space for that. And the best way to take this bit is to use what it provides and learn from where it falls short.

So, what should we do? Laugh about sheet caking, then go out and get active at every level. Look for the racism that it is hard for us to see. Pay attention to local news. Go to city council meetings. Make political connections. Help elect good state senators. Use this all as a laboratory for building the movement that will change the status quo. The white nationalists are afraid. Make sure that this fear is warranted.



The Wesleyan Anti-Covenant Association


On July 12, refusing to wait for the conclusions of the Bishops’ Commission on a Way Forward, the Wesleyan Covenant Association published their statement in favor of breaking their covenant with the United Methodist Church if it does not do what they want.  The WCA Disavowed any compromise that might allow the Church to remain united. Citing Acts 15, ever the favorite passage of schismatics, they called for conservative and liberal Methodists to part ways.

This will come as a surprise only to those who have been wearing conservative goggles for the last year.

Back in July of 2016, Bishop Bruce Ough, the President of the Council of Bishops named the convening of the WCA in a list of events that “opened deep the wounds in the United Methodist Church.” The founding of the WCA, he said was one of the occurrences that “fanned the flames of Schism.”

This earned Bishop Ough rebuke from the conservative bloggosphere. Kevin Watson responded claiming that he was “stunned” at the paragraph where the Bishop had included the WCA in with other trends moving toward schism. He called the Bishops comments part of a “distracting and disparaging” attempt to make it appear that conservatives were part of the problem. To be fair, Watson never actually said that the WCA was not interested in schism. Instead, Watson rehearses a mental gymnastic routine  to claim that if there is a schism the conservatives are not to blame. According to Watson, the liberals are the one hand clapping in our discordant ovation. Holding the General Conference hostage by the coercive strategy of threatening to leave the Church if it does not not toe the conservative line is, by fiat of the conservative mind, a perfectly reasonable form of participation in our covenant, not a violation of it.

David Watson, however, picked up where Kevin Watson (no relation) left off. David Watson lamented the poor treatment of the innocents in the Wesleyan Covenant Association.

Only in times such as these could a group that affirms all of the central teachings of United Methodism, is led primarily by pastors who have kept their ordination vows and pay their apportionments, and has publicly disavowed the intention to divide The United Methodist Church be accused of attempting to foment such a division.

Unlike Kevin Watson, David Watson did not suggest that Bishop Ough’s comments were part of a “distracting and disparaging” project. David Watson was willing to grant that Bishop Ough “did not mean to mischaracterize” the WCA. Watson does not investigate how or why such a “mischaracterization” could have occurred. He left off by characterizing the statement as “unhelpful.”

So, now we sit on the far side of the WCA “coming out.” As their critics suggested, they were simply yet another sex-fixated, homophobic institution of the religious right that is aiming at taking over the United Methodist Church. It was its conservative defenders who were mischaracterizing the WCA.

I think Bishop Ough deserves some apologies. And I think that the members of the WCA are right. They should immediately feel free to part ways with the “big tent” of United Methodism and leave the United Methodist Church.

Syria 4/7/2017

I am currently at a meeting in Chicago and have not had the opportunity to fully digest everything that is happening currently in Syria. But I do think that we need to be careful here.

It seems to me that the primary problem is NOT that the United States has commenced military strikes in Syria. It’s helpful to remember that into 2013 Barack Obama threatened military action against Syria in the case of the use of chemical weapons. On Syria, Hillary Clinton was actually more bellicose then Trump during the election. She supported the creation of a no-fly zone which would’ve included military incursions to destroy air bases in Syria. So at this point we were apparently likely to be militarily more involved with Syria regardless of who won the election. Further, the use of chemical weapons in Syria that we witnessed recently seems to me to provide prima facie cause for military action on humanitarian grounds.

The problem with the United States military incursion in Syria at this point is not then THAT it happened. It is rather the context in which it happened. When Obama threatened the use of military force in Syria it was combined with diplomatic push that led Syria to hand stockpiles of chemical weapons over to Russia.The idea of establishing a no-fly zone over Syria was part of a long-term strategy that included removing Assad from power.

As recently as last week, contradicting years of US policy, the Trump administration was seeking a normalization of relations with the Assad regime. As I have previously noted, this policy doubtless contributed to the context in which Assad felt comfortable openly deploying chemical weapons. Further, the current military action has been linked to no long-term serious strategy or immediate diplomatic push.

Developing strategy and diplomatic pressure requires time and patience. The Trump administration’s military strike in Syria is AT BEST part of a strategic “madman” approach to foreign policy. This is a foreign policy in which the head of state attempts to appear erratic and irrational enough that opponents limit their actions because they are unsure what reaction the head of state is capable of. AT WORST it is literally the expression of an almost schizophrenic incoherence at the core of the Trump administration. Trump tried to make friends with Assad on the playground and when Assad hurt his feelings Trump decided to break Assad’s toy. 

Neither of these options is desirable or constructive. However at the current time it is to be hoped that US military action might have the effect of returning us to the status quo established under the Obama administration concerning the use of chemical weapons in Syria. And over the longer term it must be hoped that this might be the beginning of the formulation of a more adequate foreign policy from the Trump administration.

I’m not going to hold my breath on that last one.

Washington Woodwork


Barack Obama arrived in office on January 20, 2009. He quickly made healthcare reform one of his top priorities. In February he announced his intention to move forward legislation to a joint meeting of Congress. The administration and Congress were not working from scratch. They drew upon plans from the Bush administration and from Romneycare in Massachusetts. But they knew that it took time to get good legislation worked out. Bills were first crafted in June and July. The Senate Finance committee alone met 31 times to work out the details. Seeking to find a bi-partisan compromise, the rafters of the bill drew further upon plans proposed by Senate majority leaders Howard Baker, Bob Dole, Tom Daschle and George J. Mitchell. In September, Obama again addressed congress to express his appreciation of the good work that they were doing. After prolonged debate, the House passed the bill in early November 2009. The Senate, however, continued to debate and amend its version of the bill, only approving it in December of 2009.

Trump took office in January of 2017. The Republicans, without any concern for bipartisanship, have rammed their largely untested and poorly thought out healthcare bill through committees as quickly as possible. It’s March 23rd. Trump has just announced that if he doesn’t get a House vote by tomorrow, he is packing up his things and going home.

Politics, Max Weber once wrote is the “strong and slow boring of hard boards.” The Republicans seem to think it is more like blowing up the lumber mill.