Global (United?) Methodism

June 2006.  I was exhausted and nauseated.  Some of that could be pinned on my first trimester, but the feelings were stronger than usual.  It did not help that I was intensely impatient with any foolishness during my pregnancy.  (I use the term advisedly – “the fool has said in his heart there is no God.” And it did not seem to me that many people on the floor were acting as if God were in the room with them.)

I threw down my tote bag full of fliers advertising various programs and agencies of the Virginia Conference, and collapsed onto the chair in our hotel room.  With enough vehemence to unsettle my husband, I began to pray: “Lord, strike them down – strike us down – every last one of us.  Something showy, a surgical strike that we cannot ignore, that any thoughtful Christian will attribute to your hand.  Strike us all with food poisoning – just the delegates and the alternates – let us all be too sick to show up tomorrow.  Cut all power to the Coliseum – but only to the Coliseum, and only when we try to enter.  Make us all too sleepy to wake up in the morning, so that none of us show up until time for evening worship.  But food poisoning would be best Lord.  Make each and every delegate as nauseated as I am right now, and more so.  This conference must be stopped!”  And then, though spent and hopeless, I continued to moan listlessly to my husband, like a child whose heart is no longer fully in her tantrum, as I got myself ready to slip into bed and sleep.

Much to my disappointment, the morning came like any other morning in Hampton, with delegates streaming into the Coliseum.  Unlike a few of my colleagues, who felt that voting should not be allowed to get in the way of a good game of golf, I forced myself to join the rank and file.  If God would not be persuaded to stand in our way like the angel before Balaam’s donkey, then I would proceed as I was bound to do.  And so it was that I was there to witness – if not something like repentance and reconciliation for the previous day’s shenanigans, then at least hopeful gestures in that direction.

That year, there had been a lot that I was not prepared for – I did not have my finger to the wind.  There were relationships and conversations that were going on behind the scenes – things that I could have been more educated about, if I had not been pointing my attention in other equally worthy directions.

When I started watching this year’s General Conference from afar, I was reminded of that last annual conference in which I fully participated.  I didn’t totally know what was going on, but I knew enough to be angry, enough to wish to wash my hands of the idea of placing ecclesial power in the hands of a strong centralized body.

I began to wonder if there was a way forward for United Methodism without first fracturing.

But then I decided that before speaking, I needed to learn more.  I needed to understand better what was happening, and what the legislative options were.  And something happened as I read and read and read some more – I began to have more hope for the United Methodist Church than I have had in a long time.  Because just like God had a better idea than food poisoning to turn Annual Conference around six years ago, there is a better idea than further schism on the table: The Global Book of Discipline.

One of my frustrations with General Conference was that 41% of the delegates this year are from the Central Conferences, and yet General Conference continues to address issues that are largely relevant to the U.S., in very U.S.-centric ways.  Another frustration was the intense micro-managing of local congregations that takes place at this global level.  But the Global Book of Discipline proposal is a first step to addressing both of these issues – making the Discipline leaner, and more broadly applicable across cultures.

I still wonder about the wisdom of the United Methodist Church as an international body.  I wonder about the history of the central conferences, and how much is rooted in a colonialist impulse to keep a paternalistic eye on the beneficiaries of our missionary largesse.  I visited with leading members of the Peruvian Methodist Church some years ago, and I remember that they did not see any benefit to joining the United Methodist Church.  What is the history of this difference?  Why are the Methodist churches in some European countries United Methodist, and others not?  Why most of Africa, but not South Africa?  Why the Philippines, but not Latin America?  What would be the result of making the U.S. a central conference (or 2 or 3 central conferences), so that we would all be on even footing?  What if, instead, we spun off the central conferences into their own churches, without them being obligated to come to the U.S. every 4 years to listen to us suggest (in English) such things as that we restructure the entire UMC in order to address the falling membership numbers in the U.S. churches?

The more I read, the more hopeful I became, but the more questions I had.  I wished I could travel the world, talking to Methodists in every country about the history of Methodism in their country, and about their relationship (if any) to the UMC, and their feelings about that…

Actually, that would make a really great book.  Who wants to take it on?

George and Trayvon

About 2 years ago, Brian and I were working our way through mounds of paperwork for IAC, the adoption agency we had recently signed on with.  Because we had indicated that we were open to adopting a child who was not the same race as ourselves, we had an extra sheet to fill out – the cross-racial adoption questionnaire.  One that has occurred to me a great deal in the past month or so (I can only paraphrase, as I don’t remember the words precisely) was: “Why is it not enough to say your child is ‘no different’ than anyone else?”  The idea was that, even if we are able to love a child of any appearance or heritage, the agency wanted to be sure that we were aware that the rest of the world might not see our child the way we saw them – to make sure that the stars in our eyes would not blind us to the challenges a child of color might face – challenges that we had not ourselves faced when growing up.

And so, when President Obama remarked earlier this week that, if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon, I thought – he could be my son, too.

Not that I have been unaware of the hazards of “walking while black.”  Very soon after I joined my neighborhood’s  e-mail group, I found in my inbox a series of e-mails describing “suspicious” individuals in the neighborhood.  For instance, what made one of these individuals suspicious was that he looked to be a teenager, and had an afro.  I dropped my subscription, but then picked it up later, only to find that someone had fingered another “suspicious” person in the neighborhood – an African-American male driving an SUV slowly through the neighborhood.  Turns out he was one of our neighbors.  And we all drive slowly through the neighborhood – it is full of speed bumps.

When I was a child, and asked my mother about the “neighborhood watch” signs in our neighborhood, she told me that it just meant that we know our neighbors and care about them – that if we saw someone committing a crime, that we would call the police.  But now as a grownup, I have seen that, all too often, what it means is “we are a community with at least a handful of paranoid individuals, and we engage in racial and socio-economic and ageist profiling.”  And, as my daughter and I have been talking about, it is a small step from other-ing a person to making them not quite a person to believing that our fear and their otherness justifies any violence we wish to visit upon them.

Given that George Zimmerman was described in early reports as a “self-appointed neighborhood watchman,” I think that this case gives us a good opportunity to examine the neighborhood watch phenomenon, to ask ourselves how different we are from an East German Gestapo state, when we watch our neighbors and report them to the authorities for the offense of walking or driving down a public street – I suppose the difference is that in one state the “offenders” were punished for their ideas, while in ours, they are punished for what they look like.

I have waited a long time to weigh in on this, because I don’t know enough about the case to give an opinion about “what really happened that day.”  And also because I believe that, in the midst of the ongoing media circus, it is important to remember that Trayvon Martin was a particular human being, and that his loss is incalculable not because he “represents” something, but because the loss of any individual is incalculable.  Because I did not know him personally, I cannot do justice to this loss.  And at the same time, it is important to remember that George Zimmerman is a particular human being too, and not to turn him into a foil for Trayvon.  And because Florida state law seems to me to be a major player in this drama – having codified “shoot early and often, call it ‘defense’ and get away with it,” Florida is the latest to live up to our international reputation as a country full of trigger-happy anarchists — which I did not want to end up being the theme of what I wrote about.  In the same way that it takes some number of fatal accidents to get a traffic light at a dangerous intersection, it seems that this sort of idiotic law only comes to light in the wake of a tragedy like this one.

Ultimately, I want to keep the focus on Trayvon and George, and on the gospel assertion that “perfect love casteth out fear” (1 John 4:18b) – only when we know one another as neighbors, as friends – as kin to one another through the blood of Christ and the water of baptism – only when we love one another deeply with an agape love that seeks to know another as we are each and every one of us known and loved by God – only then will we be freed from the fear that allows us to track and to kill.

It is not that love is not enough – it is too often we have forgotten what it means to love – or have never realized how broad and deep that call to love our neighbor goes.  It is a good first step to say, “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin.”  To go a step farther might be to tell the story as ones who understand ourselves through the role of Adam and Eve’s 3rd son, Seth: “Once upon a time, I had a brother named George.  He went out into the street and discovered our brother Trayvon, and killed him.  Was he not our brother’s keeper?”

For Dr. Amy Laura Hall’s entry about Trayvon Martin on her blog, Profligate Grace, click here.

War Stories

Some years ago, in a fit of nostalgia, my husband and I bought a commemorative DVD box set of all the School House Rock videos, plus various other related special features.  My daughter discovered the DVDs a couple of months ago, and it has become her favorite thing to watch on TV.  “America Rock” – the series of School House Rock episodes prepared in 1976 to celebrate the bicentennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, has had the effect of making her a very patriotic little girl, planting lots of American flags in the front yard.  (This in turn has made me nostalgic for my own uncomplicated childhood patriotism – and if you are going to get excited about the U.S., the preamble to the Constitution and women winning the right to vote seem like some good things to hang that pride on.)

But unlike the videos introducing children to multiplication and grammar, these videos do gloss over a lot – and glamorize some things that are too complicated to celebrate without reservation.  Like the settling of the American West, or the Revolutionary War.  It is the question of War that has grabbed my daughter’s attention, and what began as one question: “What was the Revolution, Mommy?” has turned into a weeks long barrage of “Tell me about another war…. OK, tell me more about war?… And why did they do that, Mommy?”

As someone who began considering non-violence by the age of eight, and who was firmly committed to it before graduating from college, these conversations have been difficult.  My daughter is really too young to grasp that adults do a lot of things that don’t make very much sense – she still believes that adults are predictable and rational beings, unless we are being silly on purpose, or are too tired to think clearly.  (As a young child, she has witnessed some very sleep-deprived behavior from her parents!)  People are 100% nice or 100% mean, although she hasn’t met any mean people, so there must not be very many in the world.  It will be years before she can grasp that everyone is a mixture of nice and mean, reasonable and unreasonable – and that that mixture is what we mean in the church when we talk about “original sin” – no matter how good we try to be, there is no avoiding that we fail to do the right thing (or even persist in doing what we know to be wrong) in some measure – or, as Paul puts it:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.  (Romans 7:15, NRSV)

This does not keep her from trying to figure it out.  And in the process, she has learned an awful lot of American – and world – history.  I remember reading somewhere that age 6 is the “age of expertise” – when a child begins to specialize in some obsessive area of knowledge, and come to know more about that subject than many adults.  If military history is going to be that obsession, she is already well on her way.  She has delved into the Revolution – the whos (General Washington, King George, the “minute men,” the “red coats,” the French, the Spanish, the Hessians), the whys (taxation without representation, colonialism, parliamentary politics, war financing), the connected whens (after the Seven Years’ War, before the War of 1812, or, as Hannah puts it, “The one when the British came back and tried again.”), the wheres (Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, Yorktown)… and has been puzzling over complex questions such as does being “right” justify taking up arms?  Would Constitutional Democracy have been possible in the U.S. without watering the tree of liberty with blood (as Thomas Jefferson put it – a revolutionary who notably did not fight in the American Revolution himself?)

As we have worked our way through other conflicts (the Civil War, the Indian Wars of the American West, WWI, Vietnam, and the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), she has been drawing connections, and struggling with why war happens at all if (as she suggested) it is “always a bad idea to kill people.” (Or, as her friend Nathan added in the backseat, after listening in on one of these extended conversations, “God is sad when we kill each other, and there is lots of killing in wars.”)

She has also been trying to work out how soldiers – usually basically decent young people – could devote themselves to such a “bad idea.”

Just as genocide is a concept that is so beyond a 5 year old that I am keeping it from her at the moment (hence she has no knowledge at the moment of WWII, for instance — though I am unavoidably laying the groundwork, given her interest in Native Americans), so too is the idea of loyalty to the point of violence on behalf of another.  Because so often, “joining up” is not done out of any interest in geo-politics or flexing colonial muscle – but “patriotism” – loyalty to country.  “My country right or wrong.”  As if the generals and admirals and legislators and kings and presidents were the buddy we went to elementary school with.  And that is how good people can give in to a good idea – loyalty is archetypically good, but what about loyalty to entities embodying bad ideas?
She isn’t ready for that idea because she is unfamiliar with adolescent boys and the roots of the barroom brawl, and until she gets a window into that… well, the whole idea of joining the military is likely to be beyond her.  And she is probably going to say some unkind things in her incomprehension.  Just like we all do.  Speak, learn, repent.  Repeat.

I am trying to give her an idea of loyalty on a more global scale (treaties!), and the trouble it can lead to, through our discussions of WWI.  When too many people had promised to stick up for somebody or another if they got involved in a fight, and then they did, and honor demanded that they roll up their shirt sleeves and jump in, escalating a 2 man fight into a full on cue-stick snapping, bottle breaking, chair throwing free for all.

In the meantime, the far more dominant answer to the “why” question – the answer we keep coming back to – is fear – fear and his sister, desire.  These are ideas that a 5 year old can easily understand:  wanting something someone else has, fearing that what she has will be taken from her, or destroyed.  She understands that sometimes she misbehaves out of fear or desire, but she still is puzzled about the killing part.  Why do some grownups reach the point of killing?  We kill because someone has something (oil, land, etc) that we want, or because we think someone wants to take or destroy what we have (our safety, our land, our freedom.)

It has been a difficult few months, working with my little girl through her obsessive concern with state-sanctioned killing and the machines of killing – bayonets and cannons, guns and bombs, planes and helicopters and submarines, land mines and hand grenades… Not long ago, I interrupted her in the midst of her “tell me the story of another war” litany to ask, “It makes me sad to talk about war, Hannah.  Why do you want to know so much about war?”

“I’m just trying to figure it out, Mommy.  I don’t understand about war yet, and so I need to keep asking you more questions.  Can you tell me the story of another war, Mommy?”

And so I took a deep breath, and began, “Did you know that the story of Channukah is a war story?  It is about a miracle that happened during a war a long long time ago, before Jesus was born…”

Dear God, I pray she never thinks she has this figured out.  I pray she can always say, “I don’t understand about war yet…”  Even if it means I must keep on having these conversations in the years and decades to come.  In pain I bring her forth, my beloved child.