A Democracy Smothered to Death

Democracy Smothered to Death

There are multiple reasons to ignore the Republican National Presidential Convention this week: Hurricane Laura battering the Gulf Coast; unrelenting wildfires in California, the death toll from the coronavirus passing the 180,000 mark, as millions of students from kindergarten to graduate school return to classes — and others face months of isolated online learning; concerns about future postal service as persons wait for needed checks and medications, another young black person, Jacob Blake, shot by police — this time shot in the back, seven times — and the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin erupt in protest.  Plenty of reasons to ignore the GOPs made-for-reality-television episodes.

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Balcony in Barcelona, 2018

It can be overwhelming.  Each of these tragic events deserves attention, human care and response.  There are so many threats as so many innocent people face unexpected, life altering events.

Two images come to mind as I watched the Republican National Presidential Convention.  The first is a balcony curtain seen in Barcelona two winters ago. It was, to my eyes, a delightful piece of whimsical art: two hands appear to be pulling back the curtains on a balcony.  It represents the joy of discovering what might otherwise be hidden.

The other image is a photo taken on the same day in a nearby neighborhood.  There were dozens of these banners, hanging from balconies and roof tops.  The image is a blank face where a mouth has been smeared over and the word “democracia!” is printed below.

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Democracia!  This is a cry heard round the world in our time.  From Hong Kong to Belarus to Damascus to Louisville and Kenosha the cry, too often muted and all too real, rings out.

As I watch snippets of the made-for-television Republican convention, there is little mention of the multiple tragedies that surround and threaten to overwhelm.  In fact, these calls for democracia are not mentioned.

Folks are paraded in front of the cameras — grifters, cons, wanna-be-future-presidents.  There are folks who seek profit or status by supporting the forced alternative reality that is being sold from the platform of fear and grievance.  It is a world deconstructed of truth; a world of scarcity that is broadcast by folks who have more than enough.

All aimed at good persons, who have bought into conspiracy theories because they fear the future and, like too many people all across the world, they are willing to put their trust in a totalitarian idea… No worse yet, trust is put in a totalitarian and narcissistic man.  He actually suggests we shouldn’t believe what others may say or think — trust him only as a source of truth.   Forget science, ignore history, avoid moral thinking apart from a few made for grievance and simplistically answered dilemmas.  He who, though you know he cheats and manipulates, still claims to be the one to bring the order and easy solutions you hope will one day come.

Truth is turned on its head — the immigrants who bring talent and a willingness to work are turned into the enemy.  Young people who seek justice and protest out of conviction are turned into rioters.  NATO becomes our enemy and Russian operatives who seek to undermine our common well-being are turned into our friends.  After all, the supreme leader sends love letters to the North Korean dictator and speaks fondly of the tyrant in Turkey.  He is “doing foreign policy differently” we are told and any appeal to human rights disappears.  The scriptures are not read or studied; no.  The “holy book” is but a symbol, a prop; it is held up like some talisman that can block out the truth contained in the great and true counter narrative within the book.

The idea that there is only one person who can fix things, all of the social disarray around is what this man openly stated four years ago.  Today, in the United States the true believers are the Trumpists.  Who would imagine, who could imagine, a political party that decided it needed no plans for the future, no party platform, especially when tragedies abound?  Who could imagine?  Would someone please pull back the curtain and let the realities of our situation be made apparent.  Might “we the people” discover it is essentially our shared, widely enacted, response that can begin to bring renewed health and hope.

There are also well meaning, sincere folks.  Persons I think of as “the genuine articles” who are given a cameo performance on the GOP stage.  They have bought into the big lie.  The lie that the world is an either/or place.  Either you are with the supreme leader, and that is the only way to fix things, or you will lose your place of security, of status and order.   There are multiple alternate paths for a people who might seek truth together; however we will have to work with persons who see some parts of reality differently.  Pull back the curtain.  There are options to being a Trumpist. It will require pulling back a curtain to see that those who differ are also Children of God, like you? The Trumpist wants to say all who differ are “socialists.”  Such astonishing, deceptive, untruthful language is repeated over and over until good people believe the lie.

Democracy means we will have to work with others to solve the complex real world problems; we must, in fact, do it together.  I so value the good folks who seem stuck in this trap of binary thinking — they are my neighbors, my friends, my family.  Still, my reality is that our democracy is now being smothered. 

It is like a giant pillow of grievance and fear is forced down across the face of our body politic.  There is not room for protest, dialogue, compromise.  As Bill Moyers put it “A democracy can die of too many lies. And we’re getting close to that terminal moment, unless we reverse the obsession with lies that are being fed around the country.” (See Bill Moyers on Truth).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

United Methodism’s Long Division Problem

First United Methodist of San Diego — Habitat for Humanity Work Day

United Methodism’s Long Division Problem

My daily morning dyspepsia is, I believe, related to long division problems. I am awake in the early morning, unable to find rest amid puzzles I can’t seem to solve. At about age eight, a teacher taught me “to do long division.” The moment was delicious — I could solve big numbers that before seemed too large. In my early teens, I discovered algebraic long division. Another revelation, a gift, a tool.

Today, my morning dyspepsia, is not so simple. This problem requires an institutional calculus. It is not division I seek: rather, it is the seeking ways to avoid so much dividing — it is greater unity I would like to cipher. Every theological and social instinct within me calls out for linkage, for connection, for common ground rather than a land of separation. Am I simply foolish, nostalgic, tied to some ancient vision of St. Francis bargaining with the wolf or his meeting with the enemies during the Crusades to discover ways of peace?

Why is our nation so tribal, so insistent on becoming a splintering galaxy of spinning ideological enclaves? In ways I suspect most of us don’t fully see, the corollary exists in the divisions of the United Methodist Church. Both nation and church are pursuing long division problems. They are here now, in part because in both nation and church, we have been on a path too long-dividing. Many forces and fractions have brought us to this point: the rise of social media and loss of common language; new cultural and economic ecologies where unemployment and poor community resources persist; much focus on personal and social grievance; churches that avoid their prophetic voice as they fear the loss of market share and numerical decline — all these additives, and more, have brought us to this whirlpool of distrust.

Let’s focus on United Methodism. Maybe if we untangle this a bit, or at least untie some of these knots, it will assist with other riddles. Hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t ask for a division solution. It often happens like this – I am walking through fellowship hall at church and someone says, “What are we going to do?” I know what is meant but can’t help myself, I reply, “About what?” The answers are: “About the church.” “About the harm being done to LGBTQI persons.” “About damage to the United Methodist brand. ” “About the loss of our children who already think the church is out of touch with their worlds.” Or, I am entering a store downtown, a friend greets me and says, “What do you think is going to happen?” I play out the scene again. “About what?” I respond and I hear the same list of concerns.

Or, I get phone calls from friends around the country. (And, yes, I sometimes call them.) “What’s the latest you have heard?” “Which plan should we support?”

Add this to the daily news about presidential impeachments or government conspiracy and the result is dyspepsia along with a certain emotional and spiritual vertigo — right?

United Methodism’s Long Division isn’t this easy!

So, here are some thoughts about our long division problem in the church — these are a collection of hunches, perceptions, experiences, frequent early morning musings based on my faith journey and desire to be a follower of Jesus. Please note, these are not a plan, nor the son of a plan — no long division solution here. In fact, the PLANS I have seen are, to my mind, part of the problem. I almost chuckle at the plan of the week unveiled from some official or unofficial grouping of problem-solvers and I weep at the theological vacuity often evidenced.

I wonder if there aren’t several million plans out there among United Methodists around the world — one plan for each of the members of the denomination. Individualism and self-centered privilege lead us to find our corner with the like minded. We can shape things along with our gang and the lines of our personal preference. I think of Thomas Jefferson who in a letter to Ezra Stiles Ely on June 25, 1819 wrote: “You say you are a Calvinist. I am not. I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.” My memory is that on another occasion Jefferson opined that he “carried his religious denomination under his hat.

Well-meaning people (and some not so well-meaning) offer up new plans weekly. Some would divide the church into two groups, some three, some four. I have even heard of a plan for seven new denominations. At the same time I hear little of how these plans correspond with the great ecumenical prayer of Jesus that “they would be one” (John 17) or the message from Paul about the church as a body with many members (I Corinthians 12).

Most of the proposals that are trumpeted seem unaware of the lessons of church history or from Christians of other denominational families who have struggled with divisions in recent years. What might we learn from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship that still speaks, five decades later, of “Forming Together” after the splintering of Southern Baptists? What lessons might our Pan Methodist friends teach us as some large congregations have split off from their fellowships? Or, what of the Lutherans, the Seminex story from the Missouri Synod Church, or the merger resulting in the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) and the challenges they have faced? What lessons from the Assembly of God and splintering there? The Wesleyan Church? What might we learn from the United or Uniting Churches around the world (India, Canada, etc.) Or, what of lessons from our older sibling, the Episcopal Church.

Rather than a plan, I would offer some paradoxical thoughts, some ecclesiological assumptions, some prayerful hints for how we might proceed… with or without a plan. Paradoxical, yes, I propose them as cruciform. For they are. One clear assertion I will make is this: there will be no resurrection for us, no renewal apart from the cross. (In the gospels of Mark, Luke and Matthew there are the words like these “Those who try to gain their own life will lose it; but those who lose their life for my sake… you will find it..) Here are seven paradoxes to explore.

I pray that any reshaping or re-imagining of the United Methodist Church will be: Centered in the Christ of scripture and Christ alive in our world today; shaped by prayer and a humble mystic spirit; a seeking of unity among all believers even as we resist efforts to harm; focused locally as essential to a global witness; open to the long-haul of history in order to be relevant today; ready for sacrifice in order to find abundance in unexpected places; and, opening our hearts to the story of others within and beyond our daily routines so as to sharpen our Wesleyan distinctives.

Bishop Grant Hagiya, 2019

When have I seen us at our best? Not when we are arguing or devising our long division plans but rather when we are in mission with others. I see it when the gospel is shared and persons and communities are changed. I see it when bishops pray and invite all, especially those who disagree to a common table. When those who join that table represent the extraordinary array of those from multiple cultures and classes modeling together an invitation to live in our time and place in terms of God’s emerging kin-dom.

FUMC San Diego Acting as Witnesses

I see it in the thousands of places where our actions speak louder than our words. Where the “theology of the hammer” brings people together. I see it when the church works along the Mexican border and says in the name of Jesus, we will welcome these who are in need of sanctuary and we will not bear false witness against them. I see it when the church takes seriously its commitment to care for all creation.

A Blessing Indeed

I see it when I meet another United Methodist, from Africa, Zimbabwe. He tells me his name is “Blessing” and we laugh together when we talk about our mutual friends. Yes, he had taken some classes at Africa University. Yes, he was a student there when I visited that campus. We join in conversation about how we might heal a broken church, in order to set about healing a broken world. It is in surprises like this that my dyspepsia finds relief.

Let Caravans of Hope Be Our Response

Caravans of Hope — Our Response

“CARAVAN” it is a word being used to stir up fear among the good people of the United States.  You can hear it daily — the underlying message is “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” Those of us who follow Jesus need to respond. We need not accept the false dichotomy being offered. 

There are humane and Christian alternatives we can choose.  It is not the either/or of “barbarians at our gates” versus “wide open borders.”  As a nation we can respond with safe and honest practices of processing those who seek and deserve asylum and those who don’t.  There are many constructive ways to offer hospitality and security at the same time.

Those of us who claim to march with the Prince of Peace, who came to earth surrounded by the message “Fear Not,” must respond.  How?

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One possible response is to form our own Caravans.  Let’s make them “Caravans of the Spirit,” “Caravans of Hope and Love,” “Caravans of Compassion.”  Might we join together and march in another direction?  All of us can actually move toward the borders of our nation or at least to the borders of our daily routines to welcome, to send a message that we stand with those who suffer from FEAR — all of them — those brothers and sisters looking for asylum from terror in their home countries, AND those in the United States who are being misled by the deceits of some who seek to divide us and leave many to dwell in a muddle of fear.

Might we substitute HOPE for the HATE that is being encouraged?  Will you join in making today a day when you participate in Caravans of Hope?  From Eastern and Southern Europe, across the British Commonwealth and along the borders of the United States, in our hometowns, in our shopping malls and public spaces — 

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real people are facing the tragic reality of being demonized by those who seem to have no ethical or Biblical moorings. 

Let’s recommit to forming and joining our own caravans — ones that welcome and offer Biblical hospitality to the stranger and sojourner.  The time for a new direction can begin today through simple acts of including others with a smile, a kind word, a gift to those who work with refugees and a VOTE in the coming elections.   These acts indicate we are part of the LARGEST CARAVAN EVER — a Caravan of Hope.