By Micah Coleman Campbell
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” said Jesus on the mount and so too many a United Methodist in recent weeks. In the weeks leading up to General Conference and now one week into it, I’ve heard a lot of desire from lay and clergy alike to build bridges, heal wounds, and unify our fractured church – more so than ever as far as I can recall. Why the increase I don’t know. Perhaps I’m just seeing for the first time what happens every general conference or perhaps the church has finally grown weary of fighting the same fights every four years. But I do know that a current strong push for denominational unity is not uniquely United Methodist.
Last week I attended a preaching conference in which a whole host of mainline protestant denominations were represented. Again and again the desire for unity came up. Many noted that to those outside of the church all we seem to do is fight each other. “How do we come together as one?” they asked.
Thus far, United Methodists haven’t been able to answer that question. Before delegates arrived, Bishop Goodpaster urged his fellow bishops to “find a way to lead and model and extend the peace of Christ.” A week later those bishops mediated “holy conversations” (discussion groups meant to facilitate respectful dialogue about sexual orientation), but many were unable to keep them peaceful. Delegates reported being mocked and bullied. A day later, delegate Mark Miller addressed the floor to explain as much and share the hurt that bullying inflicted upon himself, other LGBTQ delegates, and allies. The process he said, “failed us.” Miller then asked those in the room, opposed to bullying, to stand with him and his supporters beside him. However, Bishop Hayes immediately ruled the gesture out of order. When Miller could not change the bishop’s mind, he asked that Bishop Hayes pray for the proceedings. After Hayes obliged, Miller and those already standing with him returned to their seats. Peace, at least for the moment, had been maintained.
It remains to be seen how well this peace is kept, but if this is the kind of peace we get – peace that prohibits protest and silences pain – then I hope it’s peace we reject. I understand that divisions within a body are uncomfortable, painful, and taxing. I know that internal divisions limit some of what we can achieve. I am well aware that constant confrontation is not ideal P.R. And I do remember that Jesus said “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
But I also remember he said, “‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely* on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
This week, delegates may be faced with the choice of whether to be peacemakers or prophets (in regard to sexual orientation, but many more issues as well). We United Methodists have been fighting each other for what seems like forever. That’s exhausting. And with so much talk of unity, there’s a lot of pressure on the delegates to be peaceful. Many will even be tempted to barter justice for peace. I hope and pray that’s a trade the tempted refuse to make.
For sure, ideally delegates won’t have to choose between justice and peace. In his address to the bishops, Bishop Goodpastor astutely quoted Frederick Buechner who said “…for Jesus peace seems to have meant not the absence of struggle but the presence of love.” It is possible, though difficult, for us to pursue both justice and peace. I don’t know about justice and unity, but justice and peace, yes and we absolutely should. But I suspect we’ll find that in many cases we can’t have our cake and eat it to – that to pursue justice, even peacefully, will require the dissolution of unity.
I think we’re all aware that the world is watching us in Tampa. I think that’s part of why there’s such a strong push for unity. Confrontation is ugly and we don’t want others to see it. But truly, what is worse: a church that is willing to fight itself in order to do what is right or a church that’s unified in the status quo?
Picking up where we left off on the mount, Jesus continues “You are the salt of the Earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” What are we, the United Methodist Church, good for if we acquiesce to injustice even if for the sake of unity?
Micah Coleman Campbell graduated from the University of Puget Sound in 2011 and works for Tacoma College Ministry.
Photo Credit: “Broken Dove” by Flickr user Eva the Weaver