Previously, we discussed the LGBTQ response to the Uniting Methodists. But before their questions, we turn to the Bible. Don’t complain–it’s necessary to guide our work.
In reflecting on how the conversation about the Uniting Methodists has gone online, I was reminded of Jonah in the Old Testament.
Jonah begins with God telling Jonah to go and tell the city of Nineveh to repent or be destroyed. Nineveh was a city of the Assyrians, a tribe that did terrible things by pillaging and laying siege to nearby cities, including the Israelites. Jonah had likely seen his own family members and friends lose lives and land to the Assyrians. In the tribal world of the Old Testament, it was kill or be killed, Us or Them, conquest or death.
So by verse 3 (yes! chapter one, verse three!), Jonah has disobeyed and ran away. He cannot handle offering a chance for forgiveness to the people who have done so much harm to his people.
We know the rest: Jonah runs away to sea, gets thrown overboard, swallowed by a fish, Jonah agrees to go to Nineveh, and becomes the most effective preacher in history (seven words and he turned thousands towards the Lord–even Joel Osteen can’t compete!). The city repents and is saved!
But the story ends in a haunting scene: Jonah is morose under a dead fig tree, angry at God for extending forgiveness to the people of Nineveh, to the terrible people who would have killed his people in a heartbeat–and have. His last line is to ask God to kill him to put him out of his agony.
What kind of story is this? Is this a story about human faithfulness to follow God’s commands? If so, why does it have an ending like this? It makes no sense–unless there’s a different story being told.
A New Thing
One interpretation of Jonah is that God is doing a new thing, and the story asks if the tribal people can see it and seek it when it happens.
Former pastor and author Rob Bell, reflecting on Jonah in his book What Is The Bible?, says:
The story demands non-dual awareness: many see the world in dualistic terms where there are good people and bad people, sinners and saints, us and them, a world in which people stay true to the labels and categories we’ve placed them in.
This story wants none of that. It blasts to pieces our biases and labels with the declaration “God is on everyone’s side,” extending grace and compassion to everyone, especially those we have most strongly decided are not on God’s side.
Rather than conquest, rather than Him or Me, Them or Us, God, who has a beloved people in Israel, offers the same chance at redemption to a people who have done so much harm to God’s beloved people. It was novel. It was unheard of. And it asks the hearer of the story to consider if God actually did that in the real world, would the people accept it?
When it comes to the ending, Bell concludes that Jonah is so furious at the non-dualistic approach that “he would rather die than live with the tension.”
Point of Death
That last line is stuck with me: Jonah would rather die than live with the tension.
I think Jonah’s sentiment is alive and well in United Methodism as some segments of the Church would rather the United Methodist Church die than live in tension any longer.
- That’s the expressed claim of the Wesleyan Covenant Association that calls for Paul and Barnabas to go their separate ways.
- And that’s the hope of some progressives who have endured too long and want to become their own denomination and leave the anti-gays to their own swirling circles.
And they aren’t wrong, these Jonahs, because there are very real, tangible reasons to want to remove the other in this way.
- Progressives have seen Conservative Evangelicals lead LGBTQ children to death, driving them to suicide or homelessness, and adults to a lifetime of love-denial. To progressive Jonahs, Ninevah is full of Conservative Evangelicals who make the conscious choice to revel in their spoils of megachurches, money, and political power propped up by exclusive theology. They are “Them” and have done irreparable harm to the Body of Christ.
- As much as some might hope I would make a moral equivalency argument for the Conservative Evangelicals who have experienced harm– I won’t. Doctrinal differences are no moral equivalency for the physical, emotional, and spiritual harm done to LGBTQ persons. There’s no equivalency–but there is a dualism of “Us versus Them,” built on doctrinal abstractions rather than the concrete suffering of LGBTQ people in the Church.
For different reasons and levels of validity, both Progressives and Conservatives see themselves as Jonah and the other as Nineveh, both locked into a tribal conflict that will end only when the other’s arguments have been beaten into dust, salt poured into their fields of origin, and their people converted by shame or substance.
What is God doing?
So into this Methodist dualism of RMN or WCA, of full inclusion or full forever exclusion, Progressive United Methodists have the burden of discernment: is God doing a new thing?
- Is God doing a new thing through the Reconciling Ministries Network? Are we in a better place now than we were a year ago?
- Is God doing a new thing through the Uniting Methodists? Are they the livable lukewarm water between two dualistic approaches, hot and cold, that do not see a church with both waters together? Or are they the silencing white moderate that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr warned us about? How do you know? And either way, how are we called to engage?
- Is God doing a new thing through the Commission on A Way Forward? All the reports look to be a “looser connection” whereby there would be some regional or differing streams of accountability and authority, which would lead to the same concerns as the Local Option with some having freedom and equality and others not. How do you know? How are we called to engage?
- Is God doing a new thing through United Methodism As It Is? Is the tipping point here with full inclusion in our grasp? Do the political power and voter numbers bear out that sentiment beyond our anecdotal, regional evidence? If those both are true and supportable, how are we called to engage those who do not fit within this tribe?
- Or is God not doing a new thing at all? Are we called to reflect culture and divide into Churches of Sameness, a Demilitarized Zone between them, where both sides can live into their dream, and neither is sent to convert the other again? Is that the dream?
Those are tough questions. But the worst is yet to come.
- Most difficult of all: will we see the new thing when it happens? Or will we be stuck in our tribe, the one that is, truthfully, right, that we fail to see it? Will the Perfect keep us blinded from seeing the Good? “Jonah 2019.” How will we know?
That’s a question that I’m haunted by. And I hope you are too, haunted by a God who asks “Why Can’t I?”
The next post addresses the specifics of the proposal, asking if we can hold onto our convictions and engage the Uniting Methodists at the same time.
In the meantime, thoughts?
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