By Patrick Scriven
On Tuesday, conservative Christian provocateur Franklin Graham offered his support to a Catholic priest in South Carolina who denied former US Vice President Joe Biden communion because of his stance on abortion. After applauding the act, Graham wrote, “I wish more churches, pastors, and priests would take a strong stand against abortion.”
On the same day, former US President Barack Obama made comments at an Obama Foundation event widely interpreted as a critique of ‘woke’ culture. Obama said, “This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff. You should get over that quickly. The world is messy; there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids. And share certain things with you.”
Graham and Obama present us with differing choices in how to engage with those who differ from us, describing as they do, patterns that may be familiar to close observers of United Methodism. And while only one is offering their opinion about religious actors, they both represent choices we have as we move into whatever comes next.
It isn’t hard to find Scripture to support each approach to difference as the tension between unity and uniformity is one the Church has wrestled with from its outset. Dueling statements from the priest who refused Biden communion and the bishop of Biden’s home diocese reveal the same conflict in approach, if not substance, found in the Catholic Church today.
“Sadly, this past Sunday, I had to refuse Holy Communion to former Vice President Joe Biden,” wrote Rev. Robert Morey in response to press inquiries. “Holy Communion signifies we are one with God, each other and the church. Our actions should reflect that. Any public figure who advocates for abortion places himself or herself outside of church teaching.”
Biden’s home diocese of Wilmington, Deleware, responded:
“The Church’s teachings on the protection of human life from the moment of conception [are] clear and well-known. Bishop Malooly has consistently refrained from politicizing the Eucharist, and will continue to do so. His preference, as with most bishops, is to interact with politicians individually who disagree with significant church teachings.”
It’s easy to see how these approaches differ. Some believe the best way to change another’s heart and mind is to stick steadfastly to your position. Others find more value in relationships, where both parties might grow and learn from one another over time.
Obama’s critique mentioned above isn’t solely about identity or correct policy; it is also about posture. He is naming in us a shared tendency to see people myopically, reduced to a position they hold, or an action they took, that we love or hate. This judgmental approach may be an easy way to manage difference, but Obama questions its effectiveness, saying, “If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do.”
While we might find differing scriptures to support each approach, the example of Jesus challenges us all the same. Jesus’ requirement of his disciples, that we “love our enemies,” is hard work. It is also a practice that implicitly demands that we remain in a relationship with them. It’s impossible to truly love someone that you can’t be bothered to get to know.
A large part of the discerning work of The United Methodist Church, and particularly those charged with being delegates to the 2020 General Conference, resides on this fundamental choice between unity and uniformity. Still, it also involves this question of posture.
How will we, as disciples of Jesus, choose to respond to Jesus’ challenge to love all, even our enemies? Will we take a “hard stand” against those who see things differently, or will we choose instead to recognize that we “share certain things” and find value in some ambiguity?
May God help us to offer grace generously, and to have the humility to know when we need to receive it from others.
Patrick Scriven is a husband who married well, a father of three amazing girls, and a seminary educated layperson working professionally in the church. Scriven serves the Pacific Northwest Conference as Director of Communications and Young People’s Ministries.