In Batman: The Dark Knight (2008 – IMDB), Harvey Dent is at dinner with Bruce Wayne and their respective love interests. They start talking about what role Batman plays in Gotham. Dent recounts what happens when a community is in crisis (script link – PDF):
Natascha: But this is a democracy Harvey…who appointed the Batman?
Dent: When their enemies were at the gate, the Romans would suspend democracy and appoint one man to protect the city. It wasn’t considered an honor, it was considered public service.
Rachel: And the last man they asked to protect the republic was named Caesar. He never gave up his power.
Dent: Well, I guess you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.
Thus, Batman represents a failure in the civic system to deal with a crisis. Since democratically-elected people couldn’t change the tide, Batman stepped in and seized authority as judge, jury, and punisher (not executioner, of course). When the people can’t fix a problem, an executive steps in who uses power without accountability to fix the problem. Done and done.
In our contemporary world, we have the state of Michigan where amidst budget crises the government has given authority to “Emergency Financial Managers” to take over struggling towns, cancel contracts, and fire elected officials. From Forbes:
Snyder’s law gives the state government the power not only to break up unions, but to dissolve entire local governments and place appointed “Emergency Managers” in their stead. But that’s not all – whole cities could be eliminated if Emergency Managers and the governor choose to do so. And Snyder can fire elected officials unilaterally, without any input from voters. It doesn’t get much more anti-Democratic than that.
In other words, when crisis hits, those in power turn to executive authority to guide us through the mess, regardless of how undemocratic it is. This has already been utilized to a predominantly minority town. When Rachel Maddow had this scary development on her show, she reiterated that this is not about the budget, it’s about power. These people are using a crisis (or manufactured crisis) to give more power to executives.
Finally, we get to the United Methodist Church. In the Call to Action report, there’s talk of “executives” who would guide us through this mess:
Establish a general church executive function that carries responsibility, authority, and accountability; employs and deploys general church executives; allocates resources in keeping with needs and desired outcomes; and resolves disputes.
(Call To Action Report, 27-28)
This sort of role has not been strongly fleshed out as of yet. But elements of centralizing authority are mentioned elsewhere. The Report repeatedly mentions reducing the size of the leadership teams and general boards. The GBGM has already reconfigured its operations by reducing their board’s size. But even in these centralized committees they seem to be weighted. By a 4-to-2 vote, the Interim Operations Team gives more power to the episcopacy than the laity (see A Potter’s View). In short, there’s a narrowing of church leadership roles with a focus on consolidating administrative power in the hands of the few.
As with other periods in history, in times of crisis (or manufactured crisis) we turn to the executive. Clearly, the UMC is also seeking this sort of change in our polity to centralize authority in a smaller number of fruit-filled clergy and laity to guide the ship through the choppy seas.
I am leery of this development when you see what power these executives and smaller boards would have. For example, the word of the day is alignment:
Provide base funding to the reduced number and size of agencies, with competitive access to substantial performance-based financial grants, and specifically using criteria that is tightly aligned with increasing congregational vitality
(Call To Action Report, 28)
In short, there will be fewer people who narrow the focus and if you don’t fall into the narrower focus of fewer people, then your funding gets cut. Executive authority narrows the scope of potential outreach by the church because there is less diversity for funding applicants to appeal to and to see value in. Even as boards try to be as diverse as possible, there’s no shaking the monoculture of privilege that board members tend to represent.
Finally, we’ve talked before about suspending the rules (“In Times of Church Conflict, the Law falls Silent“). I concluded with this comment:
In times of war, the law falls silent. In times of stress and fear, the law falls silent. The words of “immediacy” and “crisis” permeate the Call to Action report and clearly insinuate that in our time of crisis, we ought to disregard our polity and turn over the keys to some church executives and fruit-filled pastors to guide us out of this mess. That’s a good idea for sure. But I’m not sure it is a Methodist idea.
The key thing is the “Methodist” way of doing things. Every faith organization has this identity and structure. For example, when our Catholic friends have crisis in their communities, they turn to the monks. For example, when Cardinal Law presided over the Boston Child Abuse scandal and stepped aside, the RCC went to the Capuchin (a monastic order) Cardinal O’Malley. O’Malley sold the opulent mansion and cleaned house, as far as I can tell. My worship professor at the time said that has been their process through the ages: when the priestly order falls short (I forget the proper term for Law’s vocational lineage), they turn to the monks whose order is more bottom-up than top-down.
That’s the Catholic way of handling crises. Criticize the results how you may want, but it’s the Catholic way. The Methodist way is through democracy: elected executives, diversity of opinion, big-tent Methodism, social action in varied stratum of society, committees, boards, and mutual accountability. This has been the Methodist way ever since we lost our chief executive in John Wesley and we haven’t replaced him until, perhaps, now. It is through this Methodist unwieldy connectional system that we find both our bane of slow to respond and our strength of holding together diverse groups. Even though I really can’t stand the abuses of the democratic system by the caucus groups…it’s more acceptable than increased executive power, in my opinion.
My problem is that my generation has not seen any segment of society become more centralized. For example, music distribution went from the Big Records to Napster to Gnutella to Limewire (becoming more decentralized at each step). I honestly cannot think of any other organization in the world that is moving to a “top-down” system rather than away from it…other than corporations and 20th century power bases. And yet this move towards centralization and negation of connectionalism is exactly the direction the UMC seems to be heading with the Call to Action movement.
In short, God is found in the back-and-forth, the struggle for consensus in groups, the diversity of belief and passion that large groups bring. They are unwieldy, they are not uniform, they are slow, they are full of sinful humans…but they are Methodist. And it is exactly that quality which I fear is being lost as we excise difference and consolidate power in the hands of the few. There’s trimming that needs to happen to our family Methodist tree, but I don’t think cutting off the taproot is the best way to go about it.
I pray we do not replace the lifeline of collective striving to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, and I hope you do as well.