“Grandchildren of those who stoned the prophet sometimes gather up the stones to build the prophet’s monument. Always it is easier to pay homage to prophets than to heed the direction of their vision.” ~ Clinton Lee Scott
Floating around the news is a debate between two United Methodist Bishops about a wedding being performed for two men in Birmingham, Alabama. This war of words can be found here as retired Bishop Talbert plans to officiate the same-sex wedding in Bishop Wallace-Padgett’s territory of North Alabama.
Part of the dueling blogs and press releases is Bishop Wallace-Padgett’s press release on September 30th, which contains the following section that I want our readers to consider. You can read her “this statement is for release in its entirety with no redactions” in full here:
As United Methodists we uphold that process as much as we uphold the current result of that process, our 2012 Book of Discipline. Any disregard for that order puts the integrity of our covenant together in jeopardy…
I urged the retired bishop to reconsider as his officiating at this ceremony would be in violation of United Methodist Church law. I am also concerned that it would encourage the public to only define The United Methodist Church in North Alabama by one matter and not by the rich range of ministries of North Alabama local churches such as feeding the hungry, ministry with the poor, offering hope for those in addiction, sharing the gospel with our neighbors and welcoming all people to worship together and celebrate the sacrament of holy communion.
To better understand this press release, I think it is important to start with a blog post by Bishop Wallace-Padgett six months ago.
1963: Non-Violent Resistance
In April, Bishop Wallace-Padgett wrote a blog post celebrating the 50 year anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and affirming that the good Bishop was fully aware of its historical context. I thought that was very interesting because the content and context of that first Letter gives insight into today’s conflict.
The Birmingham Jail Letter was written in response to a group of eight white clergy in the Birmingham area (including two United Methodist Bishops) who wrote a letter calling for MLK to stop the sit-in protests. Here’s a relevant section from that Clergyman letter (the language is antiquated but reposted for historical accuracy)
We agree rather with certain local Negro leadership which has called for honest and open negotiation of racial issues in our area. And we believe this kind of facing of issues can best be accomplished by citizens of our own metropolitan area, white and Negro, meeting with their knowledge and experience of the local situation. All of us need to face that responsibility and find proper channels for its accomplishment.
Just as we formerly pointed out that “hatred and violence have no sanction in our religious and political traditions,” we also point out that such actions as incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems. We do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham.
Like the Bishop’s press release of 2013, the Alabama Clergymen of 1963 also disagreed with disregarding the orderly way (the “proper channels”) to address injustice. The process in the civil society should be respected just as the proper process within United Methodism to express grievances should be “upheld.” Likewise, these protests do not contribute to “resolutions of local problems” ie. they are distractions from the agreed-upon civil efforts (or ministry efforts) to address society’s “greater” ills.
Four days after the Clergyman Letter in 1963, MLK wrote his Letter. Yes, it only took him four days to write it! I’d like to draw out a section from that Letter from a Birmingham Jail that directly addresses both of the concerns above and we’ll give him the final word on this section.
You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.
Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation.
2013: Non-Violent Resistance
A very young Bishop Talbert was arrested with Martin Luther King Jr during one of these nonviolent protests. He understands King’s call for a nonviolent tension that is needed for growth.
In today’s conflict of the past 42 years, those opposed to the full inclusion of LGBT persons have not negotiated. Each time a loophole is found in the agreed-upon Discipline, it is closed. Each time the votes gets closer and closer to changing the polity, the way the votes are tallied is changed and the voices of full inclusion are set back again. Even language that states “we are not of one mind” is rejected. Since negotiation has been out of the picture for 42 years, non-violent protests are meant to spark the dialogue that can lead to a just resolution.
But even more importantly, Bishop Talbert also understands that homophobia is one of the sources for all the litany of items that Bishop Wallace-Padgett wrote about that Alabama churches focus on. Gay teenagers are kicked out of their households and are poor and hungry. Some gay teens and young adults deal with being excluded from society by becoming addicted to drugs. LGBT persons reject the gospel being shared because the framework doesn’t address their full humanity. So in reality, dealing with the gay issue IS a contribution to the “local problems” issue by forcing a community to deal with it. The opportunity should be capitalized upon, not silenced and lost.
The irony of a present-day Alabama Bishop opposing non-violent resistance to unjust laws–ecclesial or secular–is hopefully not lost on our readers. But let me be clear: the focus of this blog post is on considerations of non-violent resistance, not on opinions about race or homosexuality. I certainly don’t consider the good Bishop to be anything but loving to people of all races and orientations. All I ask of the good Bishop is to consider how her opposition to non-violent action has some historical resonance that may bring clarity to this situation.
What is it about non-violent resistance (to both secular and ecclesial laws) that it can be so feared and opposed during its active time, but after that which it was opposing has been defeated or brought to a just resolution, it becomes celebrated?
Thanks for your comments and welcome to our new readers!