Monday, April 28, 2008

Dirty Money: The United Methodist Church and the IRD

Interesting news from the United Methodist General Conference in Ft. Worth. On Saturday, Soulforce held a rally outside the Convention Center to ask delegates gathered inside—at the big table—to pray and think about full inclusion of their LGBT brothers and sisters at their big table.

A report on this rally is found on the United Methodist News Service website for General Conference: Robin Russell, “Black Civil Rights Veterans Advocate Inclusion”

Russell notes that several leading African-American United Methodist clergy who have long worked for civil rights spoke at the rally. They drew parallels between the struggles of African Americans in the Civil Rights movement and those of gays and lesbians today.
Speakers included Rev. James Lawson and Rev. Gil Caldwell, both of whom delineated connections between racism and heterosexism. Rev. Caldwell noted, “There is a great need for us to link the ‘isms’: anti-Semitism, racism, sexism and now heterosexism. They come from the same kind of place.”
They come from the same kind of place: those now seeking to hold the door shut to LGBT children of God in the United Methodist Church are, in many cases, descendants of those who formerly tried to keep African American brothers and sisters away from the big table. I know. These are my people, those who are working so hard to keep their big table to themselves. I grew up among them. I understand—or try to do so—what makes them tick.
As E.J. Dionne notes in his recent book Souled Out, the movement of white evangelical Southerners to the neo-conservative Republican agenda preceded the religion-driven culture war of the final decades of the 20th century, and was motivated largely by resistance to civil rights for African Americans. The same folks now resisting gay rights on “religious” grounds within churches such as the United Methodist Church were, in the mid-twentieth century, resisting the advancement of civil rights for African Americans:
Again, it’s important to put today’s arguments in historical perspective: the rightward shift among white voters, particularly in the South, was first noticed more than three decades ago. Put another way: the movement of white evangelical southerners into Republican ranks was fueled initially by civil rights and a reaction against liberalism on nonreligious grounds, not by religious fervor itself. This factor must be taken into account in any analysis of religion’s role in subsequent elections (Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right [Princeton: Princeton UP, 2008], p. 56).

They come from the same kind of place: those now seeking to hold the door shut to LGBT children of God in the United Methodist Church are terrified of loss of control, as they were during the Civil Rights movement. They are driven by the need to identify and exclude some outsider group as the source of all evil in the world, because they are mortally afraid of change in general. Change represents the possibility that those claiming ownership of the big table—historically, white men—may have to relinquish control.
They come from the same kind of place: those now seeking to hold the door shut to LGBT children of God in the United Methodist Church have tried to absolutize the word of God, their interpretation of it, selected tidbits of it—have set a few chosen verses in stone and repeat them ad nauseam—just as they did in the days of slavery and segregation, because they need some tool of control to keep the scapegoated Other in place. They need to turn the Bible into what it was not meant to be—a stick to beat others about the head with—in order to make it seem that the world in which they have power over others is divinely ordered, set up by God to benefit them.
As Rev. Caldwell notes, in 1964, a United Methodist church in Mississippi turned from its door black and white UMC Bishops, citing scripture to justify its action of excluding African Americans and their white allies. The church argued that it was “not un-Christian” for it to maintain its status as an all-white congregation.
I know these folks. They are blood of my blood. Sadly, I understand, at least in part, what makes them tick, their ravening need to keep change at bay, because their world is threatened, their ownership of the big table called into question. I witnessed their deceitful use of scripture—carefully selected tidbits of it—during the Civil Rights struggle, and was as unconvinced by this use of scripture then as I am now unconvinced by their similarly selective use of scripture today—carefully selected tidbits of it—to justify their savage exclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered brothers and sisters from the table.
The Bible belongs to God, not to men, to white men and those they can buy and sell. The Lord's Table belongs to God, not to men, to white men and those they can buy and sell.

Also on the UMC News Service website for General Conference this weekend is an article by Linda Green entitled “Doubts Arise Following Gifts of Cell Phones.” Green reports that, as General Conference began, a coalition of right-wing groups within the UMC representing the Confessing Movement, Good News/Renew, Transforming Congregations, and UMAction provided free cell phones to more than 150 African delegates to use during the conference.
In a 23 April letter to recipients of the phones, the coalition invited delegates to a “free breakfast” where they might have “fellowship with other like-minded delegates” and receive “information about the important issues that are coming before the conference.” The letter ends by asking that those receiving the phones consider voting for a slate of members for Judicial Council. I’ll leave it to readers’ imagination to decide what theological and political positions the candidates endorsed by the coalition represent.
This provision of cell phones with strings attached is receiving serious critical attention at General Conference. Bishop Kenneth Carder, a professor at Duke Divinity School, believes that it "crosses the boundaries of what is appropriate in this kind of community . . . ." Carder concludes that the action of those providing the phones “violates the very essence of what it means to be Christian community."
Jim Winkler, top executive at the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, notes that the groups providing the cell phones have a vested interest in stirring discontent among African UMC delegates. These groups have been working hard (and expending untold sums of money) to convince African Methodists that full inclusion of LGBT Methodists represents an exclusively Western preoccupation and an abdication of biblical principles. In Winkler’s view, these groups have been "providing deliberately distorted and inaccurate information to African United Methodists." Winkler sees the cell-phone giveaway at General Conference as part of “a pattern of manipulation of the African delegates, and that is what really, really troubles me.”
Erin Hawkins, top executive of the church's Commission on Religion and Race (and an African-American woman), notes that the choice to give cell phones to people of color outside the United States raises concerns about racial paternalism. She draws a parallel between the cell phone giveaway and the way in which early colonists in America provided token gifts to native Americans to mollify the native peoples as they took land from the recipients of their gifts.
Hawkins states, “My hope is that the white leadership of the church would be mindful of the actions in light of the history of exploitation of people of color in this church. I hope they would not willingly engage in any sort of behavior that would undermine the humanity of people of color whether they are in the United States or other countries. This action of giving cell phones to buy or manipulate people can be interpreted as a return to that sort of racist behavior."
A report on Daily Kos’s Street Prophets Blog by Cross and Flame entitled “Video: IRD Bribes UMC Delegates with Free Cell Phones” provides even more information about this cell-phone giveaway (see This report notes that the funds supporting the cell-phone giveaway come from the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), the parent organization of UMAction.
IRD, founded largely by right-wing Catholics in 1982 with seed money provided by the Scaife Family Foundation, professes a concern to preserve orthodoxy and biblical fidelity in mainline Christian denominations. As Andrew J. Weaver and Nicole Seibert’s “Church and Scaife” at the Media Transparency website notes, the group has specifically targeted the United Methodist Church and several other mainline Protestant churches (see
Weaver and Seibert characterize the IRD’s concern with the UMC as “a continuing, orchestrated attack by determined right-wing ideologues who use CIA-style propaganda methods to sow dissention and distrust, all in pursuit of a radical political agenda.” These authors' analysis of the deep ties between the IRD and the groups involved in the cell-phone giveaway at the current UMC General Conference is illuminating.
Weaver and Seibert argue that the ultimate goal of the IRD is to cause schism within the United Methodist Church, insofar as the church tries to adhere to its Social Principles. In the view of Weaver and Seibert, the IRD is adroitly using wedge issues such as homosexuality and abortion to set factions within the United Methodist Church against one another.
In this battle, the IRD has sought to represent “the” voice of African Christianity as univocal—as “biblical” and “orthodox,” as uniformly opposed to gay rights. The IRD has been highly successful at planting soundbytes in the mainstream media which suggest that churches that promote gay rights lose members to more “orthodox” churches.
The IRD organization has urged the media to represent the choice of the Episcopal Church to consecrate an openly gay bishop as a choice that will lead to the fracturing and demise of the worldwide Anglican communion (a fracturing that the IRD has itself worked for within the Episcopal church). The IRD seeks to downplay the prophetic witness of African Christians who resist the organization’s right-wing agenda—including Bishop Desmond Tutu—while highlighting opposition to homosexuality among other African Christians (and helping to foster and fund such opposition through dissemination of misinformation to various African churches).
The Daily Kos Street Prophets’ report about the IRD-funded giveaway of cell phones to African delegates at General Conference notes another curious feature of the generous giveaway program: not only were the phones given away at a fellowship breakfast at which voting instructions were helpfully provided to phone recipients; but, in addition, the phones are programmed to send text messages to recipients during General Conference. These messages will provide up-to-the-moment instructions to African delegates who have received them about how to vote as various pieces of legislation come before General Conference.
As the Daily Kos Street Prophets story about the phone program notes,
“In conclusion, the IRD has
(a) provided a service free of charge
(b) expected votes in return for the service, and
(c) plans to thwart the Holy Spirit by text-messaging delegates as they are voting.”
Street Prophets considers this phone giveaway program despicable, as do I. As its report concludes,
The IRD continues its tradition of buying votes at General Conference because they see their impending doom in the United Methodist Church. Their 12 point agenda has mostly failed, they have failed to provide results at most of the bullet points, and the only arrow in their quill is their success at gay-hating. But as the winds constantly move forward to inclusivity, if they are unable to keep this last bastion, then the writing is on the wall. Thus, they spend enormous amounts of money to buy cell phones and then tell delegates how to vote.

They are so desperate that they resort to the cardinal sin in the United Methodist Church when it comes to General Conference voting: Listening to a cell phone rather than listening to call of the Holy Spirit is a sin. By enabling and encouraging this, they are sinning mightily.

May the Spirit which sustains us all ring in our hearts louder than a cell phone, and may the buzzing in our guts telling us how to vote bring us more peace than a buzzing text message.

Dirty money: the IRD provides dirty money to groups like the United Methodist Church. Such money always comes with strings attached. Taking such money and not recognizing its dirty sources puts churches at risk of selling their souls.
I entirely agree with Andrew Weaver and Stephen Swecker when they argue in an article entitled “The Fighting Methodists and the Political Right” that the United Methodist Church needs to become more sophisticated in its analysis of the goals of groups like the IRD—and of the price churches pay when they accept money from such groups or allow such right-wing activist groups to determine the church’s goals and to interpret the church’s theology (see
Bargain with the devil and you end up dancing with him. My experiences in Methodist institutions of higher learning—particularly my most recent experiences in Florida, where the presiding UMC bishop is promoted by the IRD—have convinced me that it is extremely deleterious when churches strike bargains with the devil in order to gain dirty lucre.
When churches sell their souls to the devil, they forfeit the right (and lose the ability) to speak prophetically to culture. When they accept dirty money from organizations like the IRD, they begin muting their message of God’s embrace of all human beings, and, in particular, of the most marginal among us.
When those accepting such dirty money are people of color or women, or women who are also people of color (and yes, anyone is capable of being bought), these recipients of “gifts” from groups like IRD run the risk of becoming token examples of “inclusion” who can no longer analyze processes of marginalization and exclusion that continue today in the lives of LGBT Christians. One of the nastiest and yet most effective tools used by groups like the IRD—people I know, flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood—is to try to use people of color and women to make it appear that the right-wing agenda is truly concerned about the inclusion of “authentically” marginalized people, while combating the inclusion of LGBT people who have no right to be at the table, since we are under a biblical ban.
The churches need to be more adept at understanding the political machinations of groups that fifty years ago combated the full inclusion of people of color in both church and society, and in the latter part of the twentieth century combated just as fiercely the full inclusion of women in church and society. The outsider group may have a different face today. The mechanisms of exclusion and the ultimate goal of the mechanisms of exclusion—control of the table—remain the same.
Dance with the devil, and you end up singing the devil’s song. The money is just not worth it, when it comes with such a price-tag attached.

No comments: