Balance, Imperfect but Balance
News of the death of Senator Richard Lugar arrives. Not surprising, but saddening. Coming two months after the death of Senator Birch Bayh it causes me to think about the gift of balance.
Balance — that which allows us to stand upright and walk forward. Balance — that which keeps us from being overwhelmed by vertigo — whether physical or ethical. Being Hoosiers, of a certain generation, for many years in the later half of the twentieth century, we United Methodists knew these two, one a Republican and the other a Democrat. Each different, yet each shared our common Methodist heritage. We United Methodists watched and lived with a balance displayed in our public/political lives — and in our churches.
Lugar and Bayh were different — yet they seemed to come as a matching set. Lugar modeled modesty and graciousness; an intellect – a political and ethical realism; an openness to bipartisan solutions to complex national and world situations. Bayh was passionate, a natural leader, and could light up a room with his rhetoric; he too was an informed realist, and when prepared, could debate with the best, and his drive to make a difference saw him take a lead in essential societal changes.
Bayh’s leadership on Title 9 legislation guaranteeing equal rights for women in education, sports and commerce was a difference maker. Lugar’s commitment to disarmament resulted in much of the nuclear arms control that emerged and his persuasion finally lead to the ending of South African Apartheid. They both clearly understood that the “perfect could be the enemy of the good.”
Balance: it is missing from our body politic as a nation. It is missing from United Methodism. One cannot help but wonder as to how the nation and church moved to our current state of mean-spirited dysfunction. As a clergy person, I can say that I have watched much of United Methodism in Indiana move away from the welcoming of difference, the welcoming balance, in our faith life and practice. I have watched as we have had bishops and pastors who were too fearful of conflict to understand the gifts Lugar and Bayh modeled for us as a nation and a church.
One recent bishop in Indiana now wonders what happened to the “Methodist Middle” and I chuckle. I watched as honest debate was stifled and only one limited model for being church promoted. Cautious theological conservatism and focus on seeking the magic formula for “congregational development” was promoted over emphasis on the denomination’s social witness and honest public debate or support for church ministries with the poor or marginalized persons. We increasingly became a church in Indiana that placed our resources and commitments toward white, suburban, conservative enclaves. Expressed differences, and openness to other views — like those modeled by Lugar and Bayh — were discouraged.
Why for example were certain “preferred,” certain “more conservative” congregations allowed to thumb their noses at the giving to larger denominational causes (something we call a tithe or an apportionment)? This preference and lack of accountability didn’t go on for a year or two, no, but for decades. Meanwhile such giving was expected by ALL others. Other congregations, progressives and moderates, were never offered this same “tolerance.” In other words — the progressives and moderate congregations carried the financial responsibilities for all — freeing up resources for those who were more exclusionary in their perspectives and practices to invest.
I watched as decisions were made that moved United Methodism in Indiana to a more fundamentalist and exclusionary stance — preferred over encouraging honest listening and learning from one another about our differences and a seeking of balance. I am not naive enough to miss the fact that the nation as a whole was drifting toward more bitter language and divisive understandings. Or, that some leaders do their best to avoid as much conflict as possible — meaning they give more space to the louder voices of “so-called-traditionalists” backed by the political and media sway of the Institute for Religion and Democracy or the so-called Good News or Confessing organizations. So, it is understandable that leaders might surround themselves with persons who did not search for the balance valued by a Lugar or a Bayh — an ability to seek compromise while still moving ahead.
It required balance to move forward and not end up in a cul-de-sac of narrow-mindedness — something our denomination is seeking just now. I fear it may be too late… but if there is a way forward, we do have the gift, the model, of two men, Lugar and Bayh, both United Methodists, who brought very different gifts and perspectives. Yet both made our nation better for their service. I give thanks for them — and pray for balance to be regained in our nation and our church.