After a year or so of the freelance writing market not being terribly lucrative for me, some of my stuff has been published again. I wrote the Sermon Starters for Circuit Rider, a publication for United Methodist clergy.
I’ve been sitting on this blog post for a little while, for fear of being politically incorrect. Over the King holiday weekend I found myself being very uncomfortable with a lot of the rhetoric that was intended to honor him. For all of the sincerity in the praise that pundits, athletes, politicians, and preachers lavished on Martin Luther King, Jr., it seemed that something was missing. It seemed like we weren’t really talking about the real King.
I feel weird saying that, because how can an upper middle class white guy who was born more than a decade after King was killed claim to know “the real Martin Luther King”? I don’t mean to imply that I fully understand who he really was. I’m not even sure who I really am half the time. What I am saying is that if we take a closer look at his public ministry we might get a different picture than the relatively safe figure who occupies an elevated seat in the narrative of the American Civil Religion.
Chris Rock has a bit that he does about taking a class in black history, which he thought he could ace without studying because he was black. To his surprise, the answer to every question was not “Martin Luther King”. I’m pretty sure that my knowledge of black history was about as deep as Chris Rock’s until I got to college. They taught me in grade school that Martin Luther King was a great man who said that everyone should be equal, and they would show us a clip from “I Have a Dream”. It turns out they only told us the safe part of the story.
It wasn’t until a number of years later that I found out that King was concerned with a lot more than ending segregation. In his last few years he began to speak out against the Vietnam War, against the advice of many of his friends because they thought it would undermine their continuing work on civil rights. King said that he couldn’t not speak out because Vietnam represented the same injustice and oppression they were fighting against in the US.
As I began to learn more, I also discovered that King was concerned about poverty issues for the same reasons he spoke out on segregation and Vietnam. I had always known that he was killed in Memphis, but nobody taught me that he was there to lend support to a sanitation worker’s strike. As I learned more about who Martin Luther King was and what he stood for I began to have a hard time understanding why he’s quoted so much by people who are pro-war, anti-union, and couldn’t care less about poverty.
What I’ve come to realize is that we’ve done the same thing to Martin Luther King, Jr. that we’ve done to Jesus and countless other prophets, radicals, and charismatic leaders who were a thorn in the side of the established powers of their day. We’ve selectively edited our collective memories of who they were and what they did to make them safe, and then we hold them up as role models who seem to support the status quo, even though they were driven by a passion to see fundamental change in the way we live together as a human community. By pretending to honor them we disgrace their memories by ignoring what they stood for.
I’m glad we have a national holiday to remember Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s important for us to remember not only him as an individual, but the things that he stood for. So let’s not be afraid to say what it was he really stood for, and how his message impacts us today. Were King alive today he would have some very strong opinions about the war in Iraq, about the fight over immigration, and about our health care crisis. And they probably wouldn’t be very popular, certainly not befitting such a lauded American hero. Somehow a radical who was uncompromising in his fight for justice has become one of our national saints, so to truly honor his memory we might just have to become radicals for justice ourselves. I’m pretty sure Martin Luther King, Jr. would have wanted it that way.
The latest incident in a very public spat at one of Nashville's most prominent churches has me very upset. For those that aren't familiar with the situation, here's a link to the story in the Tennessean newspaper: Two Rivers threatens to oust suers.
Sidenote: I'm going against my usual rule here. When I'm critical of something I try to do it in such a way where I'm criticizing ideas and general practices, as opposed to criticizing specific individuals, especially when it comes to fellow pastors. That being said, I'm going to be very critical of a fellow pastor.
Several members of Two Rivers Baptist Church recently filed a lawsuit against the pastor, Jerry Sutton, and other church leaders because the concerned parties believed that these leaders were misappropriating church funds. While I'm not sure that filing a lawsuit is the best way to solve conflict in the church, I believe that church members have a right to know how the leaders are spending the money that people tithe in good faith. It seems that Two Rivers doesn't disclose their budget, even to members, which is more than a little shady. So right or wrong, this group of church members has filed suit.
So what does the pastor, the spiritual leader of the congregation, do in response? He threatens to kick them out for daring to question his leadership! What's more, he proof texts to defend his actions. Citing Matthew 18:15-17, he argues that kicking people out of the church is the biblical last step in conflict resolution because Jesus says to treat the person "as you would a pagan or a tax collector".
But how did Jesus treat pagans like Jarius, the Roman centurion? He healed his daughter. How did Jesus treat tax collectors like Matthew and Zacchaeus? He ate with them (the ultimate sign of trust and fellowship in the ancient world), he forgave them of all their sins before they even asked for it, and he invited one of them to be his disciple. The last thing Jesus would do is bar someone from even attending a worship service.
My point is this: if we are seeking to live out God's grace in all that we do, then we won't be afraid to get our hands dirty. Simply cutting off a relationship might be the quickest and easiest thing to do, but it is not the path of reconciliation that God calls us to. I pray that Pastor Sutton will demonstrate this grace to his people by dropping the threat of excommunication and doing everything in his power to not only resolve the situation at hand but to reconcile the strained relationships. Both parties in this conflict clearly have sins to atone for, and the true spiritual leader won't be too proud to take the first step, even if the other person started it. Doing so would be a powerful witness to the work of God's grace in the world.
It's a new year. Time for new issues, new thoughts, and new blogs. I'll begin this year by considering what will be happening in my denomination in a few months. In April the United Methodist Church will have it's quadrennial General Conference. It's a meeting we have every four years that consists of an equal number of lay and clergy delegates from every conference in the world. General Conference is the only body that can officially speak for the entire denomination. So as you can imagine, these meetings are always significant.
I'll be honest. I'm very worried about what's going to happen this year at General Conference. I'm not worried because there is tremendous disagreement over hot-button cultural issues- that's merely reflective of the world we live in. What worries me is that at the last several General Conferences, as well as in the rhetoric (including the Methodist Blogosphere) in between, we've seen a tremendous spirit of disunity and unwillingness to live together amidst our differences.
At each Annual Conference session this past year, delegates were elected to represent the conferences at GC. Almost immediately, the lobbying began. A number of groups on what we in America would call the conservative side of the hot button issues have held "informational meetings" with the stated intention of helping delegates understand what is at stake at GC. These "informational meetings" look a whole lot like the "voter guides" that Jerry Falwell and other members of the Religious Right used to produce right before elections: they seem to be pushing a highly partisan agenda rather than merely providing information.
I don't think there's anything wrong with taking sides on these issues, per se. I certainly have strong opinions on a lot of issues. What worries me is that long before the delegates to GC gather, issue groups are drawing battle lines. It's as if we're going into this with an "us vs. them" mentality. The fact that a small but vocal minority has been advocating a split in the UMC along partisan lines only increases my anxiety about the future of our denomination.
There is more than enough room for disagreement and diversity in the United Methodist Church. We've always been a "big tent" denomination. After all, we count as members both George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton! One of the reasons John Wesley believed conferencing to be a means of grace was that it gave us the chance to sit down at the table together, face to face, and work out our issues together in a spirit of unity. To be fair, for John Wesley "unity" meant agreeing with him on every single issue (he was the consummate type A control freak), but the concept remains beneficial.
If we go into General Conference with an "us against them" mentality we will be sending the wrong message about who we are as a denomination. We will be just another group that draws battle lines and values winning at all costs. If, on the other hand, we choose to work together in a spirit of love and compassion we will send the message that fellowship and unity (amidst our diversity) in Christ is what our church is all about.