Friday, April 17, 2009

Bush and Torture: What Does It Mean to Be Methodist Today?

I have been fighting with myself about this posting. Because, God help me, I cannot read the sickening memos about our recent legacy of torture that the government released yesterday (here), without reminding myself that George W. Bush is a Christian. And, to be specific, a United Methodist.

As I’ve noted previously on this blog, both of my grandfathers were Methodists, so I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Methodists. I cherish the Wesleyan traditions that call social structures to conversion, to the practice of justice and peace. When I read documents from my own family’s history, I am struck by the passion with which some members of my family engaged the slave system in which they were enmeshed, as plantation owners and slaveholders who also happened to be Methodists. I am struck by their struggles, that they cared enough about their church’s teaching to struggle—and often struggle hard—with the disparity between what their church proclaimed and what they did in their personal and economic lives.

In some cases, their Methodist convictions led them to manumit their slaves. In other cases, it urged them to assist freed slaves as they migrated to Liberia. In one case, it led a Methodist minister who was also a state representative in Alabama to buy slaves that were mistreated whenever he could do so and to set them free. In another case, it led a white planter-minister to challenge the laws against miscegenation and to form a marital union with a free woman of color, acknowledging her as his wife and his children by her as his lawful family, even when laws forbade such acknowledgment.

So when I read the memos about torture under the Bush administration, I take these personally. I ask how a United Methodist, with the historic legacy of commitments I have just sketched, could possibly countenance brutal torture of other human beings. And could work to set up a system for such torture sponsored by my own government.

I’m sickened by these memos. As I read them, I wonder what being a Christian—a Christian walking in the footsteps of John Wesley—means in the world today. What difference does it make, I have to ask myself, for the United Methodist church to issue noble proclamations deploring injustice, war, mistreatment of workers, homophobia and heterosexism, if those proclamations mean nothing, nothing at all, in the real world? In the lives of Methodists. In the behavior of Methodist institutions.

As I say, I have fought with myself about saying these things on this blog. I am an outsider to the United Methodist church, after all, albeit one with deep family roots in Methodism. It is always a touchy matter to criticize other families and their behavior. One can confidently skewer the pretensions and hypocrisies of one’s own family, but doing so with other families is tacky, and courts angry responses from the family under fire.

And still. Bush was president. He was my president, though I surely did not vote for him. I have a right to wonder about the disparity between what his church claims to cherish, and what Mr. Bush did as president.

I have also worked in United Methodist institutions and have seen at close range what goes on in those institutions, vis-à-vis the Social Principles. I have seen how the Social Principles of the church can be honored by effusive lip-service, but totally ignored in the labor practices of United Methodist institutions.

I have watched the United Methodist church pass resolutions condemning homophobia and heterosexism (here), while the United Methodist institution in which I worked did absolutely nothing to combat those sins within its own structures, and when it savagely punished anyone who called for dialogue about this. I’ve worked in a United Methodist institution that, even after the last General Conference passed a resolution decrying homophobia, not only does not have any policy forbidding discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, but actively oppresses gay employees.

I feel I have to speak out. In this nation with the soul of a church, religion is more than a private matter, after all. Religions have a public face. The United Methodist church has a significant and powerful public presence in American life. I live in a city whose culture—whose civic and not just religious culture—is imbued with a Methodist ethos.

It matters to me when my Methodist brothers and sisters do not call their own brothers and sisters to accountability for making a mockery of core Wesleyan values and principles. It matters to me when I look at who is leading the fight to re-outlaw gay marriage in Iowa, and discover that the senator spearheading that movement, Christopher Rants, is a United Methodist (here).

I have been made sensitive to United Methodist dialogues and the powerful influence of the United Methodist church in American culture by my own horrendous experience of injustice in a United Methodist institution. It appalls and will continue to appall me that, when my partner and I were treated with gross indignity by a United Methodist institution, not a single minister on that institution’s governing board raised her or his voice in protest. It appalls me that it was a United Methodist minister who advised the leader of that institution when Steve and I were assaulted as human beings by that Methodist institution, had our livelihood removed from us without cause, and were placed in a precarious economic position that still burdens our lives.

I am sensitive to United Methodist issues as I read the torture memos, too, because I have been receiving reminders recently of the upcoming annual meeting of Reconciling Ministries Network, a group of courageous United Methodists working to call their brothers and sisters to accountability for their injustice towards gay persons. In its treatment of gay and lesbian human beings, the United Methodist church displays the same shocking insensitivity to its own best teaching that the Methodist president George W. Bush displayed towards Wesleyan principles in crafting techniques of torture.

And the two issues are connected. You can't undermine the witness of a church by ignoring its call to just treatment of gay human beings, without also undermining the witness of a church when it calls for an end to war and the social injustices that lead to war. The same United Methodists who work tooth and nail to keep gay human beings out of the Methodist church combat the church's teachings about just labor practices and about issues of war and peace. Homophobia is connected to militarism and exploitation of workers.

As Mel White notes in an interview with Brent Hartinger at today’s AfterElton website (here),

You know, religion isn’t changing that much. Here’s the most liberal church of all, the Episcopal Church, being divided down the center by it. And here’s the United Methodist Church pastors holding at the national assembly this last summer to allow pastors to deny membership to lesbian and gay people. Allowing them to deny membership, not ordination or marriage – membership.

And the United Methodists have this great tradition of progressive kind of stance with John and Charles Wesley and the Native Americans and all that kind of stuff – they’ve always been liberal – now they’re being taken over by these right-wing organizations within their church. And the Catholic Church, I mean when the Pope just a few weeks ago says it’s as important to save the world from homosexuality as it is to save the rain forests, I think we haven’t gotten very far with him either.

When I read this, when I read the torture memos and remember that George W. Bush is a United Methodist, when I read the noble UMC General Conference resolution against homophobia and heterosexism but look at how some Methodist institutions actually behave, I have to speak out. I have to ask my United Methodist brothers and sisters please to address the disparity between the words and the deeds within their institutions—to call their Wesleyan brothers and sisters to accountability.

And I certainly promise that I will continue to hold my Catholic brothers and sisters accountable for actions that betray what we claim to cherish—because God knows, there’s a lot of work to do on my side of the fence, too.