Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Holy Conferencing as Soul Work: Witness of Johnetta Betsch Cole (#2)

My fourth reason for pointing my discussions of holy conferencing to Johnetta Betsch Cole’s “touch the soul” image has to do with the conflicted way in which African-American women today are addressing issues of homophobia—an issue I intend to address in more detail in a subsequent posting. For now, what I want to note is that in a very real sense, the disparity of viewpoints among African-American women today about this issue mirrors and reflects the disparity of viewpoints in churches of the radical middle that currently experience gridlock as they try to negotiate these issues, a gridlock resulting from their inability to come to any accord on the reality of LGBT brothers and sisters in their lives.

The various ways in which African-American women today are choosing to deal with the reality of LGBT brothers and sisters in our midst illuminate the options facing churches today. They also underscore the importance of developing methods of holy conferencing and sacred conversation that allow people of varying viewpoints to talk, study, and pray together about these issues—without harming those already harmed by social structures.

This principle of not doing harm is, in my view, a guiding principle of conferencing or conversation that wants to call itself holy or sacred. It is a principle rooted in the theology of John Wesley himself. It is also a significant stumbling block for the current practice of holy conferencing in the United Methodist Church.

In the aftermath of the remark at this General Conference that our LGBT brothers and sisters are the spawn of the devil, I have done as much research as possible to try to understand how any conferencing that calls itself holy can permit—can what is permitted is also elicited—such an attack on an already marginalized group of human beings.

Here’s what I find: there is a plethora of ground rules for United Methodist holy conferencing out there. Delegates to General Conference are enjoined to be nice, to think about the effect of their words on others, to listen, to avoid getting heated before responding, and so forth.

These are, of course, admirable norms for any conversation that wants to aim at sacred discernment. They are not, however, enough.

The ground rules that I can discover for United Methodist holy conferencing, as it is currently practiced, lack critical norms to sort clear fiction from clear truth. They lack critical norms that offset the tendency of a cultural group with overweening power in its hands to ride roughshod over other groups. The ground rules for holy conferencing, as it is currently practiced in the United Methodist Church, are not capable of creating a safe space in which LGBT persons can reveal themselves, their real, human lives, their struggles within the church, without fear of stigmatization and reprisal.

The culture at large has made it unthinkable to identify people of color or women as spawn of the devil. Because cultural discourse rules now widely recognize this kind of language as a vicious unmerited attack on groups of human beings who struggle with prejudice (that is, to be precise, as hate speech), church gatherings for holy conferencing do not legitimate—they do not permit or elicit—such language.

Anyone using this kind of discourse about women or people of color in the context of holy conferencing would quickly be ruled out of order. More precisely, this kind of language would not even be brought to the floor in holy conferencing at present, because of cultural developments that make it impossible to utter in church contexts.

It is, however, still possible to speak of LGBT human beings as the spawn of the devil, because society itself still legitimates a discourse of contempt for and hostility to LGBT persons: terms like “pansy” can still be bandied about with impunity even by prominent political leaders in our culture, because the culture itself legitimates the use of these terms, and churches do not raise their voices in protest. With regard to what may be said about (and therefore done to) LGBT human beings, the morality of “because we can” still prevails.

And in a church context, it is still possible (because the attitudes and discourse of churches incorporate unreflective cultural bias, unless there are critical norms to expose and eradicate such bias) not only to imagine the possibility of hearing LGBT persons called the spawn of the devil in holy conferencing. It is also possible, in the church context, to see gay and lesbian persons who call on the churches to make such hate speech unthinkable in the context of holy conferencing reproached for being “angry,” “bitter,” or “hurtful,” when they combat discourse that would not be permitted by the churches at all, if its object were women or people of color!

In the aftermath of the most recent General Conference, I have read several online statements from LGBT United Methodists apologizing for expressing dismay, hurt, or anger at how these brothers and sisters were treated at General Conference—as if they are the source of the problem the United Methodist Church now faces in its holy conferencing. As if they elicit the scornful discourse—the hate speech—that is permitted and elicited by this "holy" conferencing . . . I have not noticed similar apologies or commitments to refrain from being hurtful on the part of the large number of delegates who held the line at the recent General Conference.

The right wing of the American political landscape, including its church representative the religious right, has been very adroit about setting the terms for conversation, including holy conversation, regarding our LGBT brothers and sisters. When it is an African or a Latin American making the charge that a gay or lesbian brother or sister is the spawn of the devil, the right wing immediately cries foul if anyone seeks to rule such language off-limits.

Flabby and nebulous love-everyone language—language that lacks critical tools to establish boundaries for discerning the truth—about holy conferencing provides a wide door through which the religious right is perfectly willing to ride in order to disrupt holy conferencing and to gridlock the discernment process (and the future) of the churches it targets. Though most mainstream churches have long since recognized that defending cultural diversity does not mean accepting every attitude or norm in any culture anywhere in the world, the religious right (and its allies in the media) are adroit about suggesting that attempts to challenge homophobia in cultures of the global South represent the imposition of elitist cultural norms of the global North on other cultures.

Though the religious right is deeply committed to keeping women in a position of subordination to males in all cultures, and though the religious right came to power on the coattails of Nixon’s Southern strategy and Lee Atwater’s Willie Horton campaign, no one charging Christians of the North with elitism when they call on Christians of the South to critique homophobia would defend female circumcision or any other grotesque expression of misogyny in a culture of the global South.

An important theological starting point for effective holy conferencing is the critical recognition that the gospel critiques all cultures—those of the North and the South equally. From a gospel standpoint, no culture anywhere in the world at any point in history fully embodies the ideals of the kingdom of God. No political party or platform absolutely encapsulates the vision of the kingdom of God. The gospel critiques all cultures and all ecclesial expressions of faith. From a theological standpoint, Africans (or Latin Americans or Asians) are subject to the same critical expectations of the gospel vis-à-vis cultural transformation as are North Americans or Europeans. The gospel transforms all cultures.

What I want to propose here is that the religious right has tamed—and ultimately, gridlocked—the sacred conversation of churches it has targeted by setting false parameters for that conversation. The ultimate agenda of the religious right in the churches it has targeted is gridlock, pure and simple—the kind of gridlock with which the most recent UMC General Conference ended.

As the religious right’s influence wanes, its attempt to gridlock the holy conferencing of churches will grow ever more feverish. Now that the religious right can no longer control the conversation as effectively as it has in the past, it will seek instead to bring the conversation to a halt. By setting a spurious boundary for the conversation that comprises holy conferencing, and by assuring that all attempts to name that boundary as false are attacked as unloving, the religious right hopes to use gridlock tactics to keep the status quo in place within churches that it targets, but can no longer control.

Gridlock is an unenviable place for a church to find itself in. Churches are in danger when they arrive at the point where they have nothing left to say to the world—nothing viable, nothing life-giving, nothing that reaches into the soul of culture and lifts out salvific strands that represent the presence of God there. The church should never arrive at the point where its only word to culture is no, any more than where its only word to the world is yes.

In conclusion, the gridlocking with which the latest UMC General Assembly ended derives, in part, from the lack of stringent “ground rules” for effective discourse holy conferencing. As currently practiced by the United Methodist Church, the Wesleyan tradition of holy conferencing is long on mercy but short on justice. It is long on dialogue but short on resolution. It is long on love and niceness, but short on determining the truth and insisting that truth be spoken in love in holy conferencing.

One might well ask if the ground rules for discourse in the current practice of Wesleyan holy conferencing are long on image but short on substance. These are claims I hope to flesh out in subsequent postings.

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