The Cost of the United Methodist Condemnation: ‘Deep empathy and sorrow for LGBTQ+ friends’

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EDITOR’S NOTE—This week, we know many of our readers are discussing the narrow vote at a global United Methodist conference in St. Louis that doubled-down on that denomination’s condemnation of LGBTQ family, friends and neighbors. As a result, this week, we are recommending 6 Inspiring Books for Christians on LGBTQ InclusionWe hope you also are aware of the inspiring column by Jim Wallis of Sojourners along with retired United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon, headlined: Are Methodists Mirroring a Culture of Division? And, Can We Do Better? Finally, we are well aware that a historic event like the St. Louis conference—which was covered as front-page news in newspapers nationwide—affected far more than members of United Methodist churches. That’s why we invited author and pastor Emily Swan to offer her analysis, as well.

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‘Deep empathy and sorrow for LGBTQ+ friends’

By EMILY SWAN
Pastor and Author of Solus Jesus

Dear Readers,

I was the first openly gay pastor in the Vineyard movement —a movement with approximately 2,400 associated churches worldwide—and  perhaps in the entirety of the evangelical orbit. I was fired in 2014, and my then-lead pastor, Ken Wilson, was fired for refusing to fire me. We now co-pastor a beautiful church called Blue Ocean Faith Ann Arbor (a2blue.org).

As I watched the United Methodist Church (UMC) general conference via livestream this week, I felt deep empathy and sorrow for my LGBTQ+ friends. The book Ken and I wrote together, Solus Jesus: A Theology of Resistance, tells the story of our own exile from our faith community and outlines the theological insights we gained from our path. We wrote it for just such a time as this—for you, our friends enduring similar treatment within other denominations, so that you might find helpful footholds for processing your own journey.

The conference re-traumatized queer people throughout the Christian world. I don’t think that’s hyperbole—LGBTQ+ people and their allies around the globe know what happened in St. Louis this week, and its effects reverberated in our hearts and minds, awakening memories of trauma and pain. I am not a UMC pastor, but some of my congregants mourn this decision, reliving their own exiles from various denominations.

The UMC harmed many vulnerable people this week.

Scripture Alone Simply Is Not Clear Enough

That said, nothing about the conference caught me by surprise, for two reasons: first the particular moment in history in which we operate is one in which the Reformation claim that Scripture is the highest and final authority in matters of Christian dispute is crumbling. Remember that Methodists and their roots in the Anglican tradition regard Scripture as their final decider in matters of faith—the Anglicans with their three-legged stool and the UMC with its quadrilateral. Treating the Bible as a “clear” guide proved unhelpful, as we now have thousands of Christian denominations created within the span of 500 years.

So, if the Bible isn’t clear and isn’t useful as a final decider, what is?

The Spirit Reveals More

In Solus Jesus, Ken and I argue it’s the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of a risen Jesus unleashed into the world to draw all people to God, teaching us and leading us. Jesus said he had “much more to say to us,” more than we could bear at the time, and that the Spirit would guide us into Truth (who is a person with whom we have relationship). Those advocating the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people understand the Spirit as continuing to reveal more of God’s heart to humanity, leading us to freedom and a shockingly wide embrace (good news!). So here we are, on the cusp of the final authority of the Church—at least for Protestants—shifting from Scripture to the Spirit; like all major historical and philosophical transitions, there are many years of in-fighting as old wineskins crack and new ones form.

Our current struggle is over much more than sexual ethics—the framework of having an easy, “clear” rulebook for the church is crumbling. In a moment of mass psychological frailty, traditionalists are fighting tooth and nail to maintain the certainty for which we humans long.

Anxiety that Focuses on a ‘Scapegoat’

The second reason the UMC conference dynamics did not surprise me is because of my deep interest in the work of René Girard, a recently-deceased anthropologist who finished his career at Stanford University. Girard’s work on scapegoat theory changed the way I view the Bible and the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and it holds incredible explanatory power for the dynamics at play across the church today.

Girard says all desire is mimetic—or imitative. When we humans desire the same thing and we either both can’t have the thing, or we both perceive we can’t have the thing, envy and rivalry develops. In the UMC, traditionalists believe LGBTQ+ people should not be recognized as pastors and their marriages should not be seen as legitimate; queer people and their allies believe they should be, on both counts. Progressives (for lack of a better term) believe both can have the things while traditionalists do not. They, in fact, believe progressives will harm the things—the pastorate and marriage—tainting them with sinful impurities.

Thus, rivalry develops.

Girard says rivalries escalate group anxiety and, when those tensions reach a tipping point, violence erupts and groups turn on themselves and eventually implode.

However, over time, humans discovered a mechanism that could save the larger group from fully destroying itself: the scapegoat mechanism. The group identifies a vulnerable person or group of people onto which they can project all of the group’s anxieties. This creates a sense of unity, with the majority coalesced against the minority. The group then accuses the scapegoat of a taboo crime and dehumanizes them, justifying violence. At this point, Girard says, even people who are sympathetic to the minority will often circle up with the victimizers—they do so not by joining them outright, but through their silence. They so often do not speak up in favor of the vulnerable, and often view themselves as victims.

This is key: the victimizers genuinely believe they are victims of the vulnerable. In the UMC it sounds something like this: Your insistence on sin being okay is causing turmoil in the Body, so you need to go because you’re harming our church and our unity. Or, for those who are silently sympathetic: Why can’t you just wait? Eventually things will change. You’re causing all of this hardship and it’s selfish. We have bigger fish to fry. Stop doing this to us.

The group then kills, exiles, deports, incarcerates, beats, tortures, fires, or otherwise weakens or expels the scapegoat(s). Once the scapegoat is incapacitated or disposed of, the larger group experiences peace … until the next dispute arises and a new scapegoat must be found.

The Unbearable (and Unfair) Weight of a Scapegoat

In the case of the UMC, our LGBTQ+ friends are the vulnerable scapegoats, made to carry all of the projected anxieties and shame of their denomination—anxieties about Scriptural authority, anxieties about sexual ethics, anxieties about shrinking church membership, anxieties about who’s in and who’s out of the group.

Having carried the shame of a denomination myself, I know the unbearable weight, and we should all weep for our queer friends in the UMC. The shame load is so very heavy.

Jesus knows this weight himself, having carried the projected anxieties of humanity to the cross. The mob circled around him and killed him, declaring the innocent scapegoat “Guilty!” Humans killed Jesus, not God. We killed Jesus to satisfy our longing for a false peace at the expense of the vulnerable. When Jesus hung on a cross, he represented all of the innocent scapegoats of the world, killed and exiled in an attempt to maintain group stability.

However, while Jesus was indeed killed, he also rose from the dead. In doing so, God overturned our human verdict of the scapegoat. We declared the scapegoat guilty, and God said our verdict was wrong: the scapegoat is innocent. In vindicating his Son, God vindicated all of the scapegoats of the world. We are to desire mercy, not sacrifice. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves. This whole messy business of sacrifice is finished.

Why We Need to Stand with the Vulnerable

I knew my role as a scapegoat for the Vineyard movement was to humanize myself before my church. This is what I see the queer UMC members, pastors, and their allies doing—telling their stories and making their presence and their pain known. However, humanizing the victims and unveiling the scapegoat mechanism for what it is, a false peace at the expense of the vulnerable, removes the feeling of unity from the larger group. Scapegoating creates unity and peace; removing the mask creates disunity and disruption. Which means that, the more people who see what’s happening, believe the pain of the victims, speak up on their behalf, and hold the majority to accountability … the more disunity you will experience. There’s far more disunity in the UMC than there was in the Vineyard movement, because far more people in the UMC are standing with the vulnerable. This is commendable.

Jesus said following him wouldn’t bring peace in the short-term. “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Luke 12: 51-53).

Standing up for the scapegoats causes division. Should this discourage us from doing so? No! It removes a false unity and forces humans to deal with the harm and anxieties tearing us apart. The UMC will either scapegoat their queer people in the long-run (looking increasingly likely), or figure out a way through their differences. But that way through can not stigmatize the vulnerable, or else it is yet again a false peace, leaving the vulnerable resenting the privileged.

Walking Away from Abuse Is a Healthy Response

I honor our queer UMC friends and their allies in the work they’ve done. They are courageous; they are heroic. But I will say this, as someone who’s been through it: There comes a time when the stress placed on the vulnerable becomes unbearable. While continuing to help the UMC come to a place of inclusion is admirable and praiseworthy, at a certain point your queer congregants will have had their fill of abuse. Walking away from abuse is a healthy response. Let me repeat: walking away from abuse is a healthy response.

Scapegoats don’t owe the majority more time, they do not owe you education, they do not owe you treasure, they do not owe you allegiance. They are not your punching bag to relieve pressure as you work out your theologies and differences. They are human beings who have gifted you time and education and treasure, and if those gifts aren’t received then they should move on.

Because we have new wineskins to stitch together. The UMC has a lovely old skin with some truly good wine, but what’s fermenting right now must spill over as the wideness of God’s love overflows into the world. It will be a shame if you can’t embrace the old and the new.

Care to read more?

DON’T MISS our ReadTheSpirit Cover Story: “6 Inspiring Books for Christians on LGBTQ Inclusion.” That story includes a recommendation of the book Emily Swan co-authored, Solus Jesus. 

GET THE BOOK—Emily’s book is available in paperback and Kindle from Amazon. It’s also available in paperback and Nook from Barnes & Noble. And, the book is listed in Apple bookstores, Google Books and other online retailers.

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  1. Martin Davis says:

    Well done. There is much to be said for walking away from abuse. I appreciate your spelling this out and helping all victims realize that they do have choices.