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(This blog posting is continued from here).

In a recent blog post, Dr. David Watson, a Dean at United Theological Seminary, has advocated for a position that moves in the direction of, but stops somewhat short of prohibitionism. He has suggested that those who favor allowing ecclesial disobedience today wrongly liken such disobedience to the civil disobedience of the civil rights movement.  He then suggests that, in contrast to participation in civil disobedience, there should be a presumption against participating in ecclesial disobedience.[1]

Dr. Watson provides three reasons why he finds a parallel between civil disobedience and ecclesial disobedience to be untenable.

1. For most of us, our national citizenship is not altogether voluntary. It’s much more difficult to say, “You know, I think I’d make a better Norwegian or Guatamalan than American,” than it is to say, “You know, I think I’d fit better in the UCC or the Southern Baptist Church than in the UMC.” Yes, hypothetically, each of us could emigrate to another country, but for most of us this simply isn’t a live option.

2. Unlike our national citizenship, ordination is a sacred covenant between the individual, God, and the church. If we engage in acts of civil disobedience, we are not violating a sacred covenant as we are in the case of ecclesial disobedience.

3.Presumably, we know what we’re signing on for when we’re ordained. (If not, you need to have a talk with your UM Polity instructor.) We know what kind of body we’re joining. We know its ideals, rules, standards, and ethical positions. Unless we immigrate to the U.S. from another country, this isn’t the kind of decision we make about national citizenship. When folks do immigrate from another country to the U.S., it is often because they are seeking a better way of life, and not because they wish to undermine the ideals of our nation. In fact, we take a very dim view of immigration with the intention of undermining our national ideals.

In general, I take the writings of David Watson to be equal in intellectual power to those of St. Thomas Aquinas. But in this case, I find myself wanting to disagree with him. In fact, I want to articulate a moral conception of ecclesial disobedience which explicitly draws from moral theology articulated in reaction to the civil rights movement. As such, I shall need to show why Dr. Watson’s suggested disanalogies do not hold up.

Dr. Watson’s first argument for disanalogy is based upon the claim that denominational affiliations are “altogether voluntary” while citizenship in a worldly political society is not. So far as I can tell this claim is neither necessarily true nor morally significant even if it were true. That it is not necessarily true can be shown by appeal to my own narrative. As I have noted elsewhere, I am a cradle United Methodist. I was raised and shaped by this religious tradition. Whatever the truth of the fact that I could theoretically leave the Church, my affiliation is certainly not “altogether voluntary.” It is part of who I am. Further, the claim that one is simply free to choose any denomination understates the significance of differences between denominations. Despite similarities, it is not the case that United Methodist theology, culture, polity, etc. are exactly like Episcopalian theology, culture, and polity except for the difference of positions on the morality of homosexuality. It is true that over the last century we have watered down our denominational differences, but we should not encourage the continuation of such a tendency by suggesting that one can simply slide between one denomination and another without disruption. Finally, we should consider the Church’s own language concerning “calling.” If we believe that some people are called to denominational leadership and affiliation, then we already believe that what is at stake in the decision to stay or leave is something other than “absolutely voluntary.”

But, even if Dr. Watson were correct about the nature of denominational affiliation, I see no reason to think that it would be morally relevant in the way he suggests. If Dr. Watson were correct on this point, it should be able to carry his conclusion over to nationality provided a similar relation to voluntarity. I.e. it should be the case that if one’s national identity were “absolutely voluntary” then that person would face a presumption against participating in civil disobedience. I do not believe we would not judge things in this way. Imagine a person with dual citizenship in the United States and Canada, who lives in the United States very near the Canadian border, who has a summer house in Canada, then add whatever other cultural considerations are necessary to weaken her or his national identity to the point that it could be considered “absolutely voluntary” (at least to the extent that this category fits denominational affiliation). When comparing this person to another person with less national mobility, would we be more likely to challenge this person participating in civil disobedience? I see no reason to think so.

Dr. Watson’s second point in establishing disanalogy between ecclesial and civil disobedience is to point to claim that ecclesial relations are grounded in “a sacred covenant between the individual, God, and the church” whereas national relations are not grounded in a similar covenantal relation. Again, there are problems on multiple fronts here. First, there is a long tradition of disagreement within Christianity about how to conceive of our relations to temporal, worldly, or secular society. This ranges from Paul’s admonition to obey the governing authorities in Romans 13, Revelation’s identification of imperial authorities with satanic power,  Augustine’s development of the idea of the saeculum, the endorsement of Christendom in the Middle Ages, the development of Roman Catholic conciliarism, Calvinist covenantal/contractarianism, Luther’s doctrine of the two hands of God, Mennonite sectarianism, etc. Many of these posit some kind of covenantal understanding of civic citizenship, given that God is the Lord of all, and not just the Church.  Without laying out an argument for a non-covenantal understanding of obligation to government, it is not clear exactly how Dr. Watson conceives of the relation between obligations of ordination and obligations of citizenship. Since both the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith include statements about the Christian’s obligations to civil government that presuppose a covenantal model of citizenship, Watson’s omission here seems quite significant in the context of an argument about United Methodist views.

But let us, at least for the sake of argument, accept Dr. Watson’s claim that the covenant of ordination is special, either in its covenantal character, or perhaps in term of the persons and institutions involved therein. What follows? Again, the implications that Dr. Watson suggests are a puzzling. There is no doubt that a covenant between individual, God, and Church is significant. And, covenants do establish limits upon all parties that agree to them, especially limits upon activities that serve the interests of one of the covenant parties rather than the goods of the covenantal relationship itself. But Dr. Watson assumes, without any argument, that ecclesial disobedience per se constitutes a violation of the covenant.  Due to this, he suggests that there should be a presumption against disobedience.  His conclusion has the unique quality of being both too strong and too weak.  It is too strong in that he seems not to understand that covenants, by their nature, include space for protest.  It is too weak in that if one is really violating a covenant with God, there should not be a presumption against this activity.  There should be an outright prohibition.  The proper place to start to unwind the error here is with a consideration of the nature of covenants.

Contemporary moral theologians have tended to characterize covenants exactly in terms of the rich dynamism of relationship demanded. They have also tended to contrast covenants with contracts, which establish much thinner, but more determinate rule-based accords between people. When looking at the possibility of dissent, it is not hard to see one reason why this contrast is made. Much of he Hebrew prophetic tradition is constituted by dissent against the institutional standards of temple ritual and monarchical authority when these structures failed to manifest the reality of divine justice. No doubt, many a priest and king wished to condemn the prophets for covenantal disobedience.  But, such dissent against the establishment in Judaism was not a violation of the Covenant, it was a manifestation of faithfulness to the spirit of the covenant. Moving on, Rabbinic Judaism is in part constituted as a constant argument about the content of the Covenant.  Provided that these arguments are not motivated by שִׂנְאַת חִנָּם (baseless hatred), but are “for the sake of heaven” they are explicitly endorsed in the Mishah.  Often, regardless of the resolution on a particular issue, contradictory conclusions by different Rabbis are recorded and may be revisited again by later generations. Christians view Jesus as having transformed (but never abandoned) the Covenant in the light of God’s active relation with the world through Christ. Was Jesus’ healing on the sabbath not interpreted by his opponents as a form of covenantal disobedience? Thus, it would be strange if Christians started speaking of covenants as if they were systems of institutional rules that downplayed broader concerns for justice, conscience, and relational standards.

Nor does looking at the particular members of this covenant lead to a presumption against ecclesial disobedience greater than civil disobedience.  In fact,  from a Christian perspective the presence of God within a covenant with individuals and institutions would lead to an opening of the possibility for dissent. A covenant between individual, God, and institution is not a covenant where God endorses the institution, then holds the individual accountable to the rules of the institution.  God transcends all individuals and institutions, including the Church. Thus, again, it is not clear why having a covenant between the individual, God, and the Church would result in a presumption against ecclesial disobedience. As Paul Ramsey, a Methodist Ethicist, writes in his book Christian Ethics and the Sit-In:

 …the Spirit and the church [God] creates are eschatological realities …To the end of time, community in Christ will remain a judgmental standard, calling for radical criticism of any actual church or any actual society.

The most confounding of Dr. Watson’s arguments, however, is reserved for last. I am not entirely clear how to locate the force of the third reason, as there seem to be several potential arguments wrapped up in his statement. His first move seems to rest in the phrase “we know what we’re signing on for.” This, he suggests, establishes another disanalogy between ordination or denominational affiliation and national citizenship. Insofar as I understand the argument here, it is quite similar to Dr. Watson’s first point, concerning voluntarity. However, here he pushes further in his own metaphor. He suggests being ordained would be like immigrating to a new nation, where one knows what one is getting into. Thus Dr. Watson seems to be suggesting that there ought (1) to be a presumption against any immigrant participating in civil disobedience and then (2) carrying this presumption over to ordained people. But I do not see from where the original presumption arises. If one immigrated, say from Cuba to the United States, would we then say that there should be a presumption against this person participating in civil disobedience? Does the fact that the person knew that they were entering a country with social problems (say, segregation or whatever) stand as a reason against her or his participation in disobedience? Unless we think that people should only be allowed to immigrate if they believe that the society that they are immigrating too is perfect, I don’t see where the presumption against their protest originates.

Indeed, I am reminded of Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail where he responds to charges that he has come to Birmingham as an “outside agitator.”   He responds, in part:

I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. … I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

It is hard to imagine this sentiment as compatible with a special presumption against the participation of some person because he or she is within the society “voluntarily.”  Indeed, it seems more that King is willing to voluntarily become a citizen of a community exactly for the purpose of participating in protest against the injustice he sees there.

This, however, is not the largest misstep in the final reason provided by Dr. Watson. The largest misstep is found in the confusion of how to conceive of civil or ecclesial disobedience itself. In the process of developing his immigration metaphor, Dr. Watson suggests that a person (at least an immigrant, but I don’t know what would make this a special case) who takes part in civil disobedience should be understood as doing so with the wish or intent to “undermine national ideals.”  To what actual participant in a civil disobedience movement does this description apply? Is this, for instance, how we should understand the civil disobedience of Martin Luther King Jr.?  So far as I know, most and perhaps all participants in the civil rights movement (regardless of whether they immigrated or not) would articulate their intentions in terms of seeing the nation live up to its true ideals. Here Dr. Watson appears to have confused the particular rules of a society with its ideals, and to have deployed this confusion in a way that begs the question against of civil or ecclesial disobedience.

So what should we conclude from this exploration? As Dr. Watson recognized, there is a strong intuition that links ecclesial and civil disobedience. In responding to Dr. Watson’s arguments, I have provided some reasons to support such an intuition. So, if some of my arguments against each of Dr. Watson’s claims are successful, further argument would be necessary to establish a relevant difference between ecclesial and civil disobedience.  Without a relevant difference, there is no basis for holding a special presumption against ecclesial disobedience (Watson’s position), much less an absolute restriction against ecclesial disobedience (the prohibitionist position).  As such, a person who is willing to allow civil disobedience in some cases will also be strongly disposed, if not logically compelled, to allow ecclesial disobedience in some cases. Without resuscitation, the prohibitionist position is in dire straits. Rejecting ecclesial disobedience shortcuts the possibility of constructive conflict within the Church, just as rejecting all civil disobedience would do the same to civil society.

(This blog post continues with Part 2: Covenantal Order).



Footnote (I know I am a geek)

[1] Watson writes that it “is incumbent upon the protesters to demonstrate that this is an ethical and appropriate way to bring about change in the denomination.” Unfortunately, two missing facts obscure what Dr. Watson is calling for in terms of his presumption against ecclesial disobedience.  First, he has not told us anything about what, if any, limitations exist for those who participate in civil disobedience.  Is it not incumbent upon them to demonstrate that their disobedience is ethical and appropriate?  Without further clarification, the comparison to civil disobedience does not help much in thinking about what would be required for ecclesial disobedience.  Second, Dr. Watson does not specify to whom his criteria must be “demonstrated” by those practicing ecclesial disobedience.  This makes it hard to know how high to place the bar of presumption.  If protesters must “demonstrate” to the satisfaction of those who disagree with them on what constitutes justice, this appears to be a form of de facto prohibitionism.  If protestors must merely demonstrate it to themselves, in accord with their own consciences, this seems like quite a modest proposal indeed.  For my purposes, and in order to attribute significance to Dr. Watson’s argument, I shall treat his claim here as a strong claim, even if it does not raise to the level of prohibitionism per se.  My main interest is in Dr. Watson’s effort to establish that ecclesial disobedience should be treated as different in kind from civil disobedience, and thus held to a higher standard of justification.