Methodism has three General Rules, and the first is “By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind” (The Book of Discipline 2016, page 78). The Book of Discipline goes on to list some of the “most generally practiced,” naming specifically “returning evil for evil” and “railing for railing.” If we feel hurt, wronged, or made to suffer, then we are not to seek vengeance by becoming the one who perpetrates evil so that the other feels our pain. Jesus did not come to make us feel pain, but take pain upon himself that we might be freed from the cycle of sin and suffering to live a new, holier way. Railing is complaining in the extreme, protesting strongly and persistently. This can be the more insidious of the two, because we are not trying to cause physical pain, but using our words to bring about emotional pain in another, defaming them in some instances, and continuing to nurture the brokenness brought about by the original painful event against us.
What does any of this have to do with Called General Conference? Yesterday was a painful reminder that unchecked suffering, anger, and pain can lead good Christians to do harm to other Christians. It was a long day, and kicked off the business at hand with parliamentary procedure on full display. It culminated after the lunch break with multiple votes in rapid succession to determine what order the petitions would be heard on the floor of those already submitted. The vote was literally about high or low priority from each delegate’s perspective. Then the results were shared showing that the first item the delegates wanted to hear and address was the pensions. This unleashed many snarky comments in the stands, social media rants, and people wondering if it was all about the fiances rather than the faith of the United Methodist Church. Perhaps the delegates wanted to get that over with first. Maybe they wanted to ensure that no matter what they helped those like myself who are already invested in the denominational pension system feel better about our future, knowing that our money would be safe and secure when the time came and we needed it. I honestly do not know what the delegates were thinking, and I cannot exactly ask all of them. Then again, neither can anyone else.
The second item would be the Traditionalist plan, the least change to the tone and tenor of the current language of human sexuality and inclusion in The Book of Discipline, and setting up a higher system of accountability for those who disregard The Discipline around issues of human sexuality. Again, maybe the delegates wanted to hear and pass this most, but maybe they wanted to hear it, and then move on, but show the global church that they considered things as they are now before moving in a new direction. I have no way of knowing exactly what they were thinking, and I will never have the chance to ask over eight hundred voting delegates what they intended with that vote. Nor will anyone else.
Right after the results were shared with the Conference, a group of those who were against the Traditionalist plan gathered together in the walk way where the observers like myself are seated, and began to make decisions and plans to disrupt the Conference proceedings. They started to loudly chant “Hate divides, love unites.” They chose to do this even when the presiding bishop attempted to lead the Body together in prayer. Seated in the second closest row, I could not hear the bishop’s prayer over the disruptive behavior. It brought back all the horrible feelings and memories of intimidating behavior and yelling I encountered from protesters at the 2008 General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas. For my fellow Methodists to prevent us from praying felt like a violation of our fellowship, not to mention rudely insensitive. I, and most of those gathered, have no voice and no vote. We did not hurt anyone, and no one should assume they know how we think or feel based upon a vote to prioritize discussion that did not include us. We may be feeling sorrow and pain, too. We may be confused and undecided. We may be struggling along side those that protested.
I recognize they feel pain. Some feel personally attacked and hurt, others feel the pain and suffering of their loves ones. I do not deny them that state of suffering, but we are called to a different response as Christians. We are not to lash out, strike back, or seek to make others feel our pain, so that they might suffer as we suffer. We are shown first by Jesus himself that his response to unfathomable, unjust pain and suffering in his passion and crucifixion was to pray for his enemies, going so far as to ask for forgiveness for them (Luke 23:34). This radical response in the face of pain and suffering is echoed in the account of the martyrdom of Stephen in the Book of Acts: “While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died” (Acts 7:59-60). This is the model the Bible offers to us, because to react in the first human way only fuels the fire of pain, continues the destructive downward spiral of suffering, and further divides us from one another.
What I have not been addressing in my posts is that from the first morning we gathered here, there have been several protesters stationed across the street, with vulgar signs, and amplified hate speech towards us. They say abhorrent things, and verbally attack anyone they see and suspect is part of the Called General Conference. Their goal is to disrupt and dishearten. They have not done so, because they do not know us, and they are at enough of a distance to make us feel safe from physical harm. Yesterday’s protesters were us, other Methodists, and well within what we thought was our safe space from angry words meant to wound our hearts. The outside protesters were never able to disrupt all the prayer we enjoyed and experienced on Saturday. Inside the Conference center, we were blissfully enshrined in our sacred space where we worshiped and prayed in peace with one another. But yesterday that peace and safety was violated such that even prayer was denied to us.
I found myself thinking, “What would I do if someone walked into the Sanctuary at my church, and tried to shout over my lay liturgist or myself while we led communal prayer?” We would be hurt, threatened, concerned for our safety, and deeply sad, but I would not turn around and shout at them, nor would I allow anyone else to do so. I would ask for our peace, look for another way to hear them, address their concerns, and seek to find a different way. But to violate the means of grace that is prayer is not all right.
I do not hate those that intentionally stripped us of our prayer together. I am disappointed that they would think it is all right to rail at their perceived enemies, and return what they feel is a painful slight by causing pain in retaliation, but that will abate. It is embarrassing to hear the chants in the live stream, and have people question how we can treat each other this way during prayer. It is devastating to think this is what we show to the rest of our denomination watching, and the world looking on.
Yet even now I have hope that we can all choose a different way. That the protesters of our Family of Faith will return to a position that can honor prayer time, and the leadership of our bishops in their office during this difficult time to navigate. I have hope that we can use our words to explain, rather than lash out. That we can lodge our complaints in a way that reflects our desire for reconciliation, not vengeance. I have hope that we can hear their pain in their words, and honor their experience, so that we can all come together in prayer. I wish no one felt harmed, but I know that many do, both of those present and those in our fellowship. Christ gives me hope that we can all speak without seeking to transfer our pain to others. Sometimes people have a bad day, and things happen they might never enact again. Perhaps we can make space for that, so we can look for ways to continue to strive for a way forward together. It will not be easy, or any easier now, but no less vital, important, and our duty to God and one another. We have to try, and hope demands nothing less.