Theological malpractice

I have tried to soften my response but haven’t found an honest way of doing it. So here goes.

What happened recently among Methodists in Florida was an act of theological malpractice and organizational malfeasance.

Simply put, Florida clergy voted against approving 16 people for advancement toward ordination because two of them were gay.

Here’s some explanation of the admittedly cumbersome process in the United Methodist Church.

Candidates for ordination first must be reviewed and approved by a committee in their local church; then approved by the local church as a whole; then be interviewed by their district superintendent; then be reviewed and approved by the district board of ministry; then be reviewed and approved by the conference board of ordained ministry; and finally be approved by a vote of clergy at a meeting of the annual conference.

Even this final vote is not final. It is for “provisional” membership. Candidates are commissioned but not ordained until after two more years of scrutiny – and, yes, another vote of clergy colleagues.

Usually, the vote on commissioning is routine. Having themselves come up through the system, clergy know how rigorous it is and they tend to trust the system, so they vote to approve candidates.

Also, many of them either know the candidates personally or have watched them come through the system over the several years required to get this far. Most of them know who they are considering. Their vote may be routine, but it is not blind.

But at the recent annual conference in Florida, the system came unglued. You can guess what issue caused the problem. Two of the 16 candidates were homosexual. The vote of clergy came up just short of the 75 percent required for approval.

It should be noted that not all conferences vote on candidates as a group. My conference, Great Plains, votes on each candidate individually. Usually the vote is unanimous. Though the candidates are present during the vote, they have their backs to clergy voting on them, so they can’t see how individual clergy members vote.

But Florida clergy chose to vote on candidates as a group, and the vote fell short. So 14 “straight” candidates were denied commissioning because two others were gay.

Just about everybody agrees that this outcome is a tragedy, but of course each side in the ongoing debate blames the other for causing the tragedy.

Traditionalists say the two should never have been allowed to get this far in the process. Progressives say the two were up for commissioning because the system worked the way it should.

At issue is the part of the United Methodist Book of Discipline that bars homosexuals for ordained ministry. This little time bomb was inserted into the Discipline by “conservatives” right after creation of the UMC in 1968 and has been a source of division throughout the church’s history.

Apparently the full 16-member group would have been approved had it not been for the negative votes of several pastors whose churches were allowed to disaffiliate from the conference shortly after the vote. They just had to get their digs in on the way out.

It should be noted that all 16 candidates will continue to serve in ministry positions as appointed by their bishop. They will just not serve as commissioned candidates for ordained ministry.

The UMC is currently fracturing. “Conservatives” are leaving, many for the new Global Methodist Church, because they can’t get their way anymore. I don’t think they will be much happier under the new system than under the current one. But at least they will, presumably, have their way on homosexuality.

I wish they were just hurry up and go infect some other church with their narrow theology. I wish they would just get the hell out of my church and let us do ministry without their constant undermining of everything we all say we value.

But even on their way out, they seem to be working to spread lies about those of us staying in the UMC. Why next thing you know, they say, we’ll be ordaining atheists or Buddhists or who knows what sort of alien critter.

Yet they call themselves followers of John Wesley. And Jesus Christ. Actions speak louder.

Fight Like Jesus

“And in this corner, weighing 150 pounds and wearing a purple robe and crown of thorns, is Je-SUS CHRIST!”

That’s the kind of intro you might expect in a book titled Fight Like Jesus. Happily, there’s nothing of that kind here at all. Instead, it’s a timely and useful guide to how Jesus confronted the powers that be during the last week of his life.

Author Jason Porterfield has direct, on-the-ground, experience working for God’s vision of shalom among the urban poor in Canada and Indonesia. His book not only demonstrates how Jesus fought peacefully but also reveals how such tactics might be pursued today.

The book is subtitled “How Jesus Waged Peace Throughout Holy Week.” It is valuable for its examination of how Jesus negotiated the social and political minefields of first-century Jerusalem. It’s also helpful in offering lessons in how those insights might be applied today.

You can, if you like, read it as a review of what Jesus did during Holy Week. Porterfield has studied some of the best scholarly work on the subject, and his presentation is clear and compelling.

The book includes insightful discussion questions, making it a good Lenten study for a small group. It’s main strength may be how cleanly it integrates historical study with practical application. You can’t read this without being drawn away from normal violent knee-jerk reactions to provocation and toward risky but non-violent ways of standing up to oppression and abuse.

Starting with Palm Sunday, Porterfield shows how “Jesus was crucified on Friday precisely because of how he sought to make peace on the previous days of Holy Week.” The palm parade leading him into Jerusalem is both a parody of Roman military might and a declaration that God is acting decisively through Jesus.

Jesus’ use of a “whip” of cords to clear the temple marketplace on Monday is often cited as a violent act, but Porterfield argues that the cords were lightweight wicker, useful for shooing away sheep and cattle but unlikely to cause injury to livestock or humans.

Tuesday is a day of rhetorical duels. Jesus stands his ground against verbal attacks and denounces those trying to lure him into political traps. He warns his followers that the violent ways of the nation’s leadership will lead to a horrible war and the destruction of Jerusalem. (It is not, Porterfield notes carefully, a “prediction” of “the end times,” and certainly not a rapture away from the mayhem.)

Wednesday also is a day of contrast. While religious leaders huddle to find a way to get rid of him, Jesus has dinner with friends and praises a woman who honors him as king by anointing him with oil.

One point here is that good ends don’t justify bad means to achieve them. Means are “nothing less than the end coming into existence,” Porterfield comments. So you do reap as you sow, and as Jesus will say soon, those who rely on the sword will die by it.

On Thursday, Jesus prepares for Passover. He gives his disciples a new command, “Love one another.” It can be done only in and through a community where all are welcome and nurtured to grow.

On this day there arises the issue of Jesus telling his disciples to buy swords. The point is not that they should be armed and prepared for violence (as Peter soon shows). Rather, because of Peter’s act, Jesus will be numbered with violent offenders.

Friday, of course, focuses on Jesus’ death. Porterfield shows how Jesus could be considered a scapegoat, but he totally rejects the popular notion that God has to smash Jesus with a mighty hammer to defend the divine honor. He notes: “Christlike peacemakers live by a spirit of mercy, never vengeance.”

The choice offered the crowd between Jesus and Barabbas is the same choice we face today. Which Messiah will we choose: the violent offender or the peacemaker? Which way shall we follow: the way of violence or the way of peace? Even while he’s being murdered, Jesus prays for his murderers. It’s a tough act to emulate.

When the risen Jesus first greets his disciples, he says: “Peace be with you!” It’s more than a greeting. It’s a vision of how he wants them – and us – to live as his followers.

Ultimately the book justifies its title. Jesus is no namby-pamby who is easily brushed aside. He fights fiercely for what he knows is right. But he uses an array of non-violent “weapons” to achieve his goals.

For these polarized times, when we are tempted to view neighbor as “other” and “other” as enemy, Fight Like Jesus offers a difficult alternative: the way of peace pioneered by Jesus Christ. It’s a welcome antidote to our un-Christlike thought and rhetoric.

(This book review is through Speakeasy, which offers free copy of the book in exchange for a fair review of it.)