"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"...doesn't philosophy amount to the sum of all thinkable and unthinkable errors, ceaselessly repeated?"--Jean-Luc Marion

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Saturday, August 11, 2018

"Oh, Lord, he's gonna preach again!"

Jeff Sessions got crosswise with the United Methodist Church (the name comes from the merger of the Methodists and the United Brethren.  As my father, raised a Methodist before the merger, used to say, he didn't know where that "United" came from, because Methodists were anything but.), which decided that because he was acting as a government official, he couldn't be held personally responsible for the family separation policy he so gleefully implemented, and indeed got in trouble with the court over just this week.  But that is now and this was then.  Whether the UMC should have dropped the case or not (and had it not, it would have found itself as toothless as a tiger with dentures; I'm sure that played into the decision), Tara Burton sums up the issue rather precisely:

The case against Sessions nevertheless raises wider questions for politicians across the religious spectrum. To what extent should religious organizations hold their politician members accountable for legislative positions they take on issues that defy their church’s perspective? To what extent should political stances — be they on immigration, income inequality, abortion, or capital punishment — be held by religious institutions to the same, or higher, standards than personal or private behavior?

Except my question is:  who are you to judge?  Yes, there is the directive in Matthew for the community:  take your complaint to your brother or sister (in Christ); then to a group of believers, if necessary; then finally to the whole community, if you must.  But this wasn't a personal matter between Mr. Sessions and a church member, so that doesn't really apply.  This was a question of association:  is Jeff Sessions fit to be among us, the membership of the United Methodist Church (in my case it would be "among them," as I claim no closer association with the UMC than the commonality of Christianity).  But seriously:  how should churches handle these matters?

Back when the Church practically was the state (and was superior to it, hence the Pope crowned Kings and Emperors; which is why Napoleon upset the apple cart, but that's another story), excommunication meant expulsion from society, not just from the congregation.  Today, who checks your ID at the door to be sure you "belong" there?  And knowing some of the truly nasty people I encountered in church as a pastor, who are they to say I don't belong there (except they had the institutional power I didn't, but that, too, is another story)?

The charges against Sessions, even in general terms, are interesting and a little shocking:

The complaint against Sessions included charges of child abuse, immorality, racial discrimination, and the dissemination of false doctrine — the latter charge a reference to his use of the Bible verse Romans 13 to advocate for submission to government authority. Sessions faced the possibility of an ecclesiastical trial and, ultimately, expulsion from the church.
So racists and convicted criminals ( a felony is , or used to be, a "crime of moral turpitude"), or who don't use the accepted exegesis are not fit to be Methodists? Gonna be mighty sparse congregations.  And I'm still back to this question of judgment:  what would expulsion mean?  We don't like you any more?  We don't care for the way you behaved?  And who among the members of the UMC is so without sin they can cast the first stone?

Tara Burton connects the use of Romans 13 to the issue of the church in the world.

Sessions’s use of Romans 13 further blurred the lines between the private, religious sphere and the political arena. For now, the United Methodist Church has, by arguing that public and private life should be judged differently, seemingly chosen to keep the two distinct.

But as (Christian) religion and politics become increasingly intertwined in the current political climate, it remains to be seen to what extent religious institutions will attempt to use that influence to challenge the Trump administration. 

First:  that line, between church and world, is always going to be blurry, and always going to be blurred.  Either the church ignores the world (huh?), or the church interacts with the world and, by doing so and by definition, interferes with the world.  It simply can't be helped.  I don't think the argument that Sessions "blurred" that line by his interpretation of Romans 13 is all that helpful an analysis.  Simply saying "Love your neighbor" and "Do good to those who persecute you" is blurring the line.  Quoting even the most famous parables, like the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan, is blurring the line.

As for the use of Romans 13 and what any institution can do about it, she may be assuming a Roman Catholic view of exegesis, where the Church can at least argue it has the "right" interpretation (and the right to impose it on church members). That was more true 500 years ago than today, but Protestantism established a very different relationship between believers and scripture. The UMC can't really tell Jeff Sessions how to interpret Romans 13.  But a press release offering an alternative exegesis wouldn't get near the attention a church trial would. In the end, the former would be wiser than the latter, because the trial would not involve the church in opposing the Trump Administration.  A trial would only prove the church had no real power, and was vindictive to boot. I don't like Jeff Sessions at all, but the best thing Christian churches can do is provide an alternative to his racism and xenophobia. Trying to punish him because they don't like his actions doesn't make Sessions look immoral. It makes the institution of the Church look like it wants to be a power, but really doesn't have any.

What influence, ultimately, to religious institutions have?  Pope Francis doesn't seem to stand too stalwartly on the side of the U.S. Bishops (who have gone rather quiet lately).  The UCC regularly issues press releases on issues of the day; does anyone have any better idea what "UCC" is (beyond the very secular Uniform Commercial Code)?  If the UMC hadn't first made public the charges against Jeff Sessions, would anyone notice if they'd issued a statement condemning the family separation policy?  I don't know of a mainstream Christian denomination that has supported that policy, but can anyone state the specific objections of any church?  I'd have to Google them myself, and I haven't.

We are back, again, to questions of judgment.  Whatever authority the Church had, historically, to pass judgment on individuals or even nations, it always played fast and loose with that issue of "Don't judge, and you won't be judged."  "Kill them all, God will know His own" is not exactly a high moral point in Church history, and the Church has never really stood firmly on Augustine's "just war" theory, or been able to prevent war or reverse government policy.  What good would be accomplished, then, by declaring a prominent person beyond the reach of the hospitality of a denomination, of the fellowship supposedly open to all?  Does "he who is without sin" not apply when the stones are being cast in the name of the church?

The policies of the Trump Administration are reprehensible and immoral and unjust and probably illegal (the courts have reversed them).  Do we change them by telling Jeff Sessions he's not welcome as a church member?  Has his position on government policy really changed all that much since he became AG?  It's my understanding they haven't.  Is the church really called to do more than bear witness to God's word and God's truth?  The more we blur that line, the more we become like the powers that be.

And the prophets of the Exile didn't exactly applaud the government of Israel for contributing to that disaster for Israel.  Read that in connection with Romans 13, and you get a very different interpretation of the latter.


Blogger trex said...

“What good would be accomplished, then, by declaring a prominent person beyond the reach of the hospitality of a denomination, of the fellowship supposedly open to all?  Does "he who is without sin" not apply when the stones are being cast in the name of the church?”

Respectfully, I think there needs to be some sort of line, and what that line is depends on the judgment of any given denomination or congregation, because, as you rightly pointed out, they are the arbiters of their community standards. In truth, being a follower of Christ should preclude an individual from participating in certain very egregious evils. There is evidence that standards like this existed in some communities the early church with regard to military service, for instance. If Jeff Sessions is an alcoholic or an adulterer then no fellow sinner in his community need cast the first stone. If Jeff Sessions is gleefully kidnapping immigrant children and trafficking them for the sole purpose of deterring future refugees from coming to the US to escape violence and poverty - the equivalent of mounting the heads of one’s enemies on spikes at the gates of the village – then I think it is reasonable for his church community to decide that he has departed far outside of what they consider to be acceptable behavior of a follower of Christ.

If “Christian” Jeff Sessions is sending Jews to the gas chambers because he simply following the law - or worse, a policy that he devised – can he still be a good Methodist? Can he still be called a follower of Christ? I don’t think so, not without ceasing his behavior and public repentance. And I think that’s what the Methodist Church was angling for in this case. And in my opinion, I think that is acceptable. Some acts are too egregious for a church community to stand by and overlook, or tacitly participate in by their silence.

11:10 AM  
Blogger Rmj said...

I don't disagree with the critique of Sessions at all, but the trial strikes me as inappropriate, especially given the charges. The church excuse for not pursuing the charges is particularly weak. But the trial is weak, too, IMHO. It would focus attention on the punishment, not the "crime." There are better ways for the church to disapprove.

YMMV, of course.

11:53 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home