I am a member of both my Annual Conference’s Delegation to General Conference 2020, and of our Conference Task Force exploring whether and how Methodists in New England might become a new and inclusive Methodist movement. Between juggling these roles and my own passion for the future of ministry in my local Methodist church and the wider Methodist movement, I’m having a lot of conversations and doing a lot of listening around where there is momentum, fear, energy, obstacle, hope, and tension in the Methodist connection. This past weekend, at the Bishop’s Day with the New Hampshire District, Bishop Devadhar asked me to say a few words and take some questions (as best I could) about the work of our delegation and task force. This is (roughly) what I shared.
In both my work as a delegate and as a member of the Open Spirit Task Force– especially on my Task Force subcommittee exploring the “options” for moving forward as a denomination or denominations, there are three main things I hear and I know, and I hold as I consider what’s before us. Two I hear loud and clear, and all seem to contradict each other at times, but all are held before me and within me as I wrestle with options.
1. We can’t wait. Methodists in New England are done waiting. Many of the pathways for next steps include passing constitutional amendments, seeking to ratify them, maybe having another commission or study, then presenting a plan that can’t be presented within our current constitution, and approving that, and rolling it out, so that in four or eight or maybe twelve years, we’ll have this all resolved. But Methodist churches in New England are dying on the vine right now. Our churches won’t exist in 12 or 8 or even 4 years if we keep doing what we are doing. We are diverting missional energy into alternately defending the sanctity of the Bible and of covenants, and defending the marginalized, oppressed, and harmed, while some of us are trying to stay alive and allowed in The UMC. In the mean time, addiction and an opioid epidemic are sweeping away a generation of people in our communities, mass incarceration is destroying our already tiny racial diversity, rural poverty holds children in a death-grip, ICE is raiding communities within 100 miles of any border or coast (most of our Conference), the climate crises is literally eroding our towns and cities… you get the drift.
Traditionalists in our Conference feel they cannot stand one more day in a denomination that will suffer a gay bishop, while queer people and allies cannot endure another day in a denomination that oppresses trans, POC, and queer bodies and lives with impunity. Incremental justice is not justice, not for those who become the collateral damage of oppression. We are at a breaking point, and we have an opportunity for that to break us open into new life. We cannot waste it. I hear this loud and clear; I know it in my bones. I’m not spending my energy on any long timelines or impossible, incremental legislation.
2. Despite what the rest of the Methodist world might think or presume about us, we can never assume that the New England Annual Conference speaks or votes with one voice. We are different. Really different. And the strange fact is that Methodism in New England has seemed to thrive through (not necessarily despite) this difference. My ministry is made stronger by the churches and lay and clergy colleagues around me who are much more conservative than I. I hope the same is true of those folks’ ministries and me. But these divisions are real and are deep, and drive a huge part of the urgency to take action now. That action, however, can’t assume a monolith that moves in a single direction together– doing so would isolate, exclude, or force churches and people who find themselves in a minority position, and I defend that minority position, because I believe that’s the demand of justice.
To my siblings in traditionalist churches and espousing traditionalist viewpoints and theologies: I see you. You are not invisible. Your ministry and your presence are valuable to me and to the kin-dom of God. I will not support or vote for a course of action that would leave you isolated on a traditionalist island amid a vast progressive sea, cut off from other churches and from a denomination that would support and equip you. I wouldn’t want that if the tables were turned (as they are in the world-wide connection), and I won’t do it to someone else. That doesn’t mean I’ll cede a single drop of this liberation sea, either. Any path forward must give each of us the opportunity to be set free but still be equipped in the living out of our calling from God.
This same difference that we name in our Conference? That’s present in every Methodist community in every level of our connection. No Annual or Central Conference is a monolith; no caucus speaks as one. There is no “Africa” and what “they” want, no “LGBTQ people” and what “they” need, no “Western Jurisdiction” and what “their” vision is, or “conservatives” and how “they” will block it. The early Methodists built a big-tent religion, and that’s what we’ve inherited.
And this same difference is true in every local church in every community in our and every Conference. There is no local church that speaks with one voice, from the most conservative to the longest-standing Reconciling congregation. Any pathway forward that requires of an Annual Conference, and/or of a local congregation, a vote between this Methodist denomination and that one will be forcing people to divide from one another. That doesn’t mean we can’t or we shouldn’t; our differences are deep and our urgency is real. And that doesn’t mark the end; the early church was– eventually– stronger after Paul and Barnabas went their separate ways for a time, so that each could spread the good news (and see this post for a suggestion of how I think we could ease a portion of this harm). But this is painful. I feel that pain, deep in my bones, deep in my heart, loud and clear. I hold it while I wrestle.
3. The third thing I don’t hear loudly and clearly, but in a way that is more still and small, which means it’s unwise to ignore. The third truth speaks with a whisper into the urgency of decisive action and the painful depth of our necessary division: is it necessary? Because the thing is New England Annual Conference has been doing this– imperfectly, granted– for years. We have been living side by side, doing ministry side by side, transforming the world side by side, seeking justice side by side. We do not bring one another up on charges. We treat one another with respect. We value the ministry of others, regardless of their sexual orientations or theological commitments. We don’t always get it right– beloved community is messy and we are fallible– but we stick with it and with each other. We sit beside each other as I did with a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association on the Task Force and say to each other I don’t want to be part of a Conference in which you are not welcome, and I believe we mean it. We stand across the picket line from one another– as a neighboring colleague of mine and I once did– on marriage equality, and beside each other on workers’ rights. We find that our little communities are indeed big enough for more than one kind of Methodism, and that our witness can work, even when it varies by context.
This little truth flies in the face of the big, unbearable urgency, and our deep, painful differences. Butthat doesn’t make it less true. So what does that mean for our future, together or apart? And if we, stubborn New Englanders as we are, if we can find ways to be church together, what might we have to model for the rest of the connection and the rest of the world?
Three truths. Three often-contradictory, always messy things I hold in my body, in my mind, in my heart. It’s a dance, a juggling act, a confusing trifold mystery.
Saturday night, I had an experience that I can only describe as something between a conversion and an affirmation, while sitting (briefly) on the floor of the Church & Society 2 legislative committee. Grace at General Conference? I know.
I came in as a substitute for my friend and a member of our delegation, LaTrelle, who had given her all as the chair of the most challenging sub-committee at General Conference (no exaggeration). After presenting all of her committee’s legislation with all she had, she tagged out, and as a reserve who has spent months and months studying the legislation of this committee, I was able to step in for the last 40 minutes of the session.
I knew there was a chance that the committee would address a proposed resolution that utilized very bad theology to enforce extreme gender binaries and diminish the identity and humanity of transgender persons who transgress those binaries. I had done some research to help prepare others to speak to it, and really hoped it wouldn’t come up. But sure enough, it came to the committee floor with the recommendation of the subcommittee, and with not a lot of hope that it would be turned down. My hand shot up immediately, and I carried my notes to the mic. My speech was not recorded, but this is my best re-creation:
My name is Becca Girrell, and I am a clergy reserve delegate from the New England Annual Conference. I paused, a long, deep sigh of a breath. Something shifted inside me.
I urge you to vote against this appalling resolution. Petition 60845 is harmful, unloving, and unchristian.
I have come prepared. I could tell you all about how this resolution stands in direct contrast to what we say about gender in the Social Principles; there we say that no gender is superior to or inferior to another. I could tell you about how this resolution stands in direct contrast to the message of Jesus, how by inserting hurtful language specifically directed at an already oppressed and marginalized group of people, we are standing in exactly the opposite place as where Jesus stands, which is always for, and more importantly with, the marginalized. I have come prepared with statistics about suicide rates and violence and the murder of transgender people, statistics meant to shock you and sway you, and I can tell you all about the brutality inflicted on transgender persons.
But I’m not going to tell you about any of that. I sighed again, breath. I put my notes down and held the mic even closer. I smiled, and the smile lingered on my lips.
Instead, I want to tell you about my family.
I want to tell you about all the fun and all the love my family shares. I want to tell you about my two children from my previous marriage. And I want to tell you about my husband, my best friend, the love of my life, my friend of more than a decade. He’s an adult convert to Christianity and to Methodism. He is gifted and called. And I know I am biased, but he is the most gentle, loving, unassuming, grace-filled, spirit-led, passionately-Methodist, magnificent person I have ever known.
He is also transgender. Silence.
I am not confused about that. My children are not confused about that. And I assure you, my husband is not confused about that. He knows who he is. He knows, through and through, that he is created in God’s own image, as we all are. He knows and has claimed– and here I do need my notes, because this is a direct quote from paragraph 161 E of the Social Principles– the right every person must have, to the opportunities and freedom for ethical self-determination. I looked up as I put down my notes again. I could see the observation section, the silent, rainbow-clad people on their feet, and Sean seated in the front row, his hand lifted in the simple sign for ‘I love you.’
Language like this resolution denies the humanity of people like my husband. It inflicts harm on people like him, and on families like mine, by suggesting confusion and inferiority where there is none. I urge you to vote no on this dangerous, divisive, and harmful petition.
I returned to my seat in the silent room, my eyes dry, my breath calm. No one spoke. The chair called for the vote. Petition defeated, by seven votes.
There are many, many times– maybe even most times– at General Conference, when I am tempted to lead with the righteous anger or the indignant confusion, or the cold, brutal statistics that I think should sway people. There is a tightness in the chest then, and tears of anguish or rage or all of the above. But this time, I led with something else. I breathed into a fathomless Breath that Pentecost-Eve. And I breathed out love.
Nothing more, nothing less. Nothing less than the endless, unconditional, mutual love that my partner and I share. Nothing less than the raw, open vulnerability of my own humanness, my own belovedness. Nothing less than a call to the heart, my heart, their hearts. Nothing less than the plea to see one single beautiful transgender person through the eyes of their loved one.
Maybe it was only this one time. Maybe it’s dangerous to believe that it works. But no one seemed to expect the vote to go the way it did. Everything similar was about a ten vote margin in the other direction. For three minutes, one Pentecost-Eve, love won.
And if I can choose to lead from love that one time, however subconsciously, however unintentionally, if I can risk my own vulnerability enough and be wide-open enough that all I show is love, if I can trust that love will be the only force that can break through and transform and leave me dry-eyed and calm in the midst of a storm of ignorance and fear… then I could choose that again. And again. And again.
Something whispers, you know this. This is what the Gospel is. This is what is sacred. This is the only path, the only Way. Only love.
Hate cannot drive out hate, Dr, King says. And maybe it can’t sway votes, either– nor can anger or statistics or the righteous indignation of my own denied humanity. Only love can do that. Only love.
(March 13, 2016) I’ve never been comfortable with embracing the blood and suffering of Jesus’ death, not because I’m squeamish, but because I don’t like what that says about God. But if redemption is in Christ’s blood (just like, as an Italian, hospitality is in mine), is it possible to redeem this image and let it speak to me– and to many of us– in new ways? (Luke 23:33-47)
Personally, I think that if you’re only going to listen to one of my sermons so far this year, it should be this one. It’s deeply theological in some ways, and also deeply personal.
“Poured Out” monologues for Lent by Dr. Marcia McFee, (www.marciamcfee.com) used with permission, but not reproduced here.
There are many voices lifted up this week in thanksgiving for the life and evangelism of scholar Marcus Borg. Perhaps all the stories that need telling have been told. But this one is mine.
The whole long post is now six and a half years old, and is worth the fun reading if you want to hear me riff on why I dislike The Chronicles of Narnia. I will, however, excerpt some highlights here.
My theological problem had always been very simple. I don’t like what most church says about God.
So much of what traditional church teaches is about how we need Jesus and Jesus is so good and loving, because God-as-Creator is so abusive and mean. God-as-Creator made people and gave them free will, and constructed a system of God’s own justice wherein those beautiful ones, created in the divine image, cannot receive forgiveness without blood, suffering, and death.
That’s not a god I could or can believe in, let alone preach.
Sometime in 2007 ish, I attended a lecture in Middlebury, VT at which Marcus Borg spoke. I don’t remember much, and the notes I copiously took are long lost. But I remember his gentleness and conviction. The audience was mostly church people, not scholars– pastors and lay people from a variety of faith traditions. He was speaking a lot about his then-recent book The Heart of Christianity, and about how it could be possible to teach a rich and subtle theology in Christian education, insisting that “regular” church people can and should think deeply about theology.
I know, what a concept. But it was radical to some of his audience, or at least what he was suggesting be the content was radical.
He handled the comments and questions and challenges with grace, and imparted this vision: that we everyday people could think and teach deeply, and that this would bring people closer to God, and deeper into faith. He demonstrated more than once his famous, humble not-knowing.
But what he said about atonement, as so many have said about so much of his writing and teaching, gave me a faith I could hold:
Borg completely re-explains Jesus as the sacrificial lamb in a way that removes substitutionary atonement from the equation, makes for a much more powerful statement of belief, challenges the systems of sin and forgiveness that require sacrifices in the first place, and is historically valid as a bonus.
It goes like this: by the first century, Jewish Temple worship was a well-oiled machine, and it controlled much in the lives of the common Jewish individual. Sin and being unclean were problems not only for the conscience, but for inclusion in the community; a person whose sin had not been forgiven or a person who had been/come in contact with something unclean (so that’s every woman every 28 days, and her husband, most likely) could not be part of ritual, community meals, or have any entrance into the Temple, and thereby entrance into the presence of God and relationship with God. Forgiveness and cleansing of sin/uncleanness required blood sacrifice of certain animals, offered by the priests on behalf of the sinner in the Temple in Jerusalem. So, those Jews who could afford the animals for sacrifices and the fees for the priests and the trips to Jerusalem could have their sins forgiven, could enter the Temple on the High Holy Days, and could stand in the presence of the Almighty. And the rest, well, too bad for them. The Temple priests held a monopoly on sin and forgiveness. They had become the ancient magic, not only demanding the sacrifices, but setting the fees, limitations, and means by which forgiveness and relationship with God were possible. One might say (although Borg did not, but perhaps I can stretch here) that the Temple claimed that they were the way to salvation, that no one could come to God but through them and the expensive sacrifices they required.
The claim, then, that Jesus is the sacrificial lamb is not a claim about the human blood required for the forgiveness of sins– that’s not part of Judeo-Christian theology in antiquity. It is a claim about the ritual sacrifice offered only by the Temple priests. To say that Jesus is the sacrifice, that he died and his blood was shed for the forgiveness of sins, is to say that the sacrifices and rituals of the Temple are meaningless. No longer do you need to buy an unblemished calf or travel to Jerusalem or pay the fees for a priest to offer sacrifice on your behalf. Christ is that sacrifice, and the Temple monopoly on forgiveness is no more. Through Jesus, whatever we or others might claim separates us from God has been removed and no further sacrifice is needed. He has, in short, challenged the very authority– that of the Temple– which required blood sacrifice, shattering the barrier between the individual and God’s presence, grace, and abundant life (we see this symbolically as the Temple curtain tears at the moment of the crucifixion; the barrier is destroyed).
… If, as Borg insists, we can re-educate the adults of our churches and educate the children as they come through the Christian Education system with what was really meant by ‘Jesus is the sacrifice for sin,’ we have hope of reclaiming Christ’s radical message: that nothing stands between us and the God of life, and no intercessor is needed to stand in the presence of the Holy.
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
‘Tis the season to celebrate love, it seems. Last week was Valentine’s Day, and today’s RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-a-Day reflection word is love.
Love is central to my theological and spiritual understanding of the world. I’m not talking about hearts and cupids, schmoopy puppy love here. I’m talking soul-shaking, boundary-shattering, grace-soaked, all-infusing love that is synonymous with the name of the Holy. That stuff. The reason for living. Love between God and creature, between an individual and the world, between two people: lovers, parents, children, siblings, friends, lived out in a myriad of ways as unique as snowflakes. Love. Love Divine. Love that makes us human and whole.
But when we talk about love, when we use and over-use the word, when we say it so often it starts to sound small and fathomable and domestic– like a word rather than like The Word— I’ve found a painful dissonance. Lately, I’ve felt excluded from conversations about love. Felt excluded when it comes to the most inclusive thing in the world. Felt silenced when it comes to the most powerful force I know.
And I don’t think I’m alone in feeling excluded in conversations about love, nor is divorce the only instance where reflecting on love can be painful. What does it mean to speak of love if love has been removed, has withered or faded, was never there? How does a child learn love if one’s parents were not loving? How does a friend trust in love if one’s trust has been violated? How does someone risk loving if love has been a place of pain and loss? How does one claim and celebrate love if that love is silenced or shamed?
What if we have not love?
Our love is our human way of living in love with God, the world, and one another. As such, it is an imperfect reflection of Love Itself. I can accept that there are times and places where we glimpse the Holy, and there are times and places where the word love comes with brokenness and pain and fragile, fearful hope for healing. For people walking that latter road, just starting the conversation– or knowing it’s not a conversation in which they want to participate at this time– can be painful enough.
So today, here’s to love that is wrapped in pain. Here’s to love that has been silenced and closeted. Here’s to love that stretches tender shoots out of the bitter destruction of broken hearts and lives and relationships. Here’s to love that is re-framed following abuse and neglect and betrayal. Here’s to love that is flawed and incomplete and imperfect. Here’s to love we aren’t ready to talk about. Here’s to love that’s too complex to grasp or name. Here’s to love that’s so big we can’t get our hearts, let alone our words, around it. Here’s to love that is a tiny portion of God’s own self.
Even if it hurts, even if we’re afraid, even if we have to whisper when we’d rather shout– or rather be safe and silent: Here’s to Love.
(January 6, 2013) In any given injustice or imbalance, one must always trace the power dynamic. Who has power? Who is being dis-empowered? Who is afraid of losing power? Who willingly relinquishes it? Jesus’ life is filled with the questions, and he calls us to think of true power very differently… (Matthew 2:1-12)
Late last week, I was contacted by fellow pastor and blogger Drew “Pastor Mack,” who was planning to write about the communion witness in which I participated at General Conference on May 3. He asked for my permission and to further pick my brain a bit, which I gladly granted, and I feel that his resulting post was a fair representation of what I said.
I subsequently posted his link on my facebook page, and followed the comments there and on his blog. Some common threads emerged, which I would like to engage a little bit further. A central critique by both Drew and many commenters centers around whether the action (commonly called a protest– I’ll get to that later) was inclusive or exclusive, unifying or divisive, and potentially politicized (in a bad way). All of it centers on what we believe about communion.
So if you will, take a journey with me through some sacramental theology.
Who Can Serve Communion (and When)?
One early response on my facebook page suggested that because the General Conference schedule already offered communion once a day, consecrated by a bishop, that this communion witness on the floor was offensive or divisive. A commenter on Pastor Mack’s blog stated that she assumed in the context of General Conference that only a bishop would be eligible to preside over communion. Both of these statements run counter to how I understand the sacrament of communion. As a sacrament, Eucharist is a sign (and outward and visible sign of an inward, spiritual grace, if I remember my sacramental theology definitions correctly). It is a visible, tangible way of us living out our belief. It is a gift from God to us. Celebrating Eucharist once a year, once a month, once a day, or one hundred times a day cannot diminish the significance or holiness of this act. Any diminished sacredness is in us, not in the sacrament. And any ordained elder is eligible to preside at the communion table. In fact, the effectiveness, so to speak, of the sacrament is not contingent upon the presider, because the one truly offering the Eucharist is God. No one can appropriate or steal communion. I can’t make “mine” what already belongs to God. Whenever two or three gather in Christ’s name, he has promised to be among us; whenever those two or three break bread and share a cup, they remember him. As a means of grace (Methodist church speak word), communion might be the place where those who do not yet know or experience Christ find a moment of grace, a beginning on the journey. As such, no celebration of communion trumps any other. We never know where and how grace might be made known.
Is the Table Open?
“This was communion for a fragment,” one person wrote.
My reply, “No. For the fragmented.”
Several people seemed to feel that this service of communion was a private one, only for the GLBTQ community and their allies. It’s sad to me that people would assume that, and I’m actually not sure why they did. We were a big honking clump of people (what I’ve learned my friend and colleague Elissa calls a “holy blob”) in the middle of a huge room, at a communion table. Once the elements were prayed over, wafers and cups were taken out from the table and offered to those around the room and outside the voting area “bar.” We were presumably all Methodists to some extent, and one of the most powerful and profound points of Methodist theology is the practice of the open table. All are welcome at the table. Always. That doesn’t mean all *feel* welcome at the table, and I can understand if one is not feeling in the spirit to take communion, or not feeling part of the body. Again, that is the spiritual place of the individual, not a reflection on the sacrament.
We did anticipate at some level that people might not feel invited to the table. Those of us who planned the witness wanted to issue an invitation, but didn’t want to “mic check” it, so we went with song. What we would have loved to sing was “Welcome” (all are welcome in this place/all of us are welcome here), but while we had the, ahem, magnificent songwriter Mark Miller in our midst, we had no piano, and it’s a harder tune to carry if not everyone knows it really well. We also ruled out “One Bread, One Body,” because the marked contrast between the preceding vote and the words of all of us being one with differences washed away was a bit too much. So we sang “Let us break bread together.” Together. Lord, have mercy on us.
Anyway, it is again counter to my very understanding of the sacrament of communion to ever presume that a table at a Methodist gathering is closed. Our communion table is always open– well, always open on one side, the receiving side. On the side of the presider, we have a closed communion table, but that’s the big question isn’t it?
Now, I have been on the other end of things, and been invited to a worship service where it would be rude not to attend, but where it was made clear I would not be welcome at the communion table. It was in the context of a Roman Catholic colleague renewing his vows to his order, and it was known that I was a former catholic now Methodist candidate for ministry. I had felt that this had been thrown in my face a few times recently, and was hurting, and in thinking about going to the service, realized that I wanted to go up to the altar with my hands outstretched and make the priest look me in the face and deny me the body and blood of Christ. Out of my own pain and anger. I chose not to attend the service, rather than either sit sullenly in the pew or come to the table of the Lord out of spite. This illustrates both the importance to me of the open table, and leads me to our next question.
In What Spirit Should We Preside Over & Take Communion?
I hear the word protest a lot, associated with the action on the floor at General Conference on May 3.
There was a protest that same day. It happened just a little later, and I participated in that too, although less visibly and less stridently. When the people who were on the floor around the communion table refused to leave, when they prevented the business of the conference from resuming with their presence and their singing (“What does the Lord Require of You?”), that was an act of protest.
It followed on the heels of an act of witness. An observation of a sacrament. A moment of prayer and worship, offered publicly and in response to a public vote, but not as a way of swaying anyone or articulating any message apart from what is always articulated in communion: our brokenness and God’s grace.
Pastor Mack wrote, “no matter what our divisions, some things should remain sacred. This should be true, most of all, for the Lord’s Table.” Another commenter described the use of the elements of communion as “props” in a political scheme.
At the same time, many people who were present in Tampa and those who were watching from the live stream describe their experience of the moment as spiritual, powerful, prophetic, or pastoral. One person wrote: “You all stayed and performed an act of Christian faith that reached across the world through this picture. You hallowed our denomination by this holy act performed in the center of a broken place.”
Much of this seems to hinge on the spirit in which the communion was offered and received. Was it offered out of anger? Taken out of spite? Lifted up to drive home a point? Some saw it this way. I knew there was a danger of that.
But, as I wrote and as Drew quoted on his blog, those who decided to offer communion in that moment saw it as “one standout example of what it means, theologically and spiritually, to live in the broken but believe in the whole and hope for the future we cannot see. Was there ever greater brokenness than the division, distrust, and ungodliness that led to Christ’s sacrifice? Is there any better example of how the broken becomes whole than the bread shared, the cup poured out to make us one?” Elsewhere, “what we decided was that the moment, no matter how the vote went, would be one of brokenness and deep pain for roughly half the room no matter what. And yet, in this brokenness and division, we are still one, and we still believe that God is able to bring healing, indeed salvation, out of the deepest pain and division.”
Even Drew acknowledges this in a comment, before restating that the “private” nature of the action (see above) was what he took issue with: “It is always a broken body that gathers at the table, and always one desperately in need of grace…”
Not everyone was in the same spirit that day. Are we ever when we celebrate the Eucharist? For me and for many, the act was one of deepest reverence, a witness and testimony to the belief in a God of justice and liberation, compassion and deep grace, in a world that has not always demonstrated those traits.
Can Communion Be (Over) Politicized?
This brings us to the most common critique I have heard following the May 3 witness: communion should never be political.
Now, I went to Boston University School of Theology, so all my theology has a strong social justice theme laced through it, for the better if you ask me, and all of my understandings are peppered with a preference for the radical, political, earth-shaking nature of Christ’s life and ministry. Jesus was a consummate political strategist. He was a master of metaphor, using story and parable, and reinterpreting ritual and pomp to articulate a new worldview, one we call the Reign of God. This is not a bad thing. I’m not saying Jesus was a politician in the way we think of our politicians today– sleazy, selfish, pick a disparaging adjective. Nor am I claiming that Jesus manipulated the people around him (although all speech, particularly rhetorical, prophetic speech, is manipulative in the best possible way). Rather, what I am saying is that Jesus was a savvy, brilliant man, who used the secular and religious rituals and symbols of his day to cast his vision, and who flipped and reframed the symbols around him into vessels for the Gospel he was preaching.
Consider the triumphant entry into Jerusalem (see Borg and Crossan, The Last Week), a dramatic and brilliant reimagining of the Roman governor’s show of might and worldly power the week of the Passover. Jesus flips this pomp and circumstance on its head, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey rather than a war horse, surrounded by children and peasants with palm branches rather than soldiers with spears. That’s not an accident. That’s brilliant political symbolism. Choose this day, his actions scream: who is your King? Under whose Reign will you live?
So when we come to the Last Supper, we also can’t ignore the religious symbolism Jesus is playing with here. It’s a Seder, a central focus of the Passover observance, a time of reflecting on suffering and bitterness, on God’s deliverance. Jesus layers on top of this ritual a new meaning– the present suffering and that which is about to strike the disciples, the tears and sweat that will be shed, the blood that will be spilled, not to mark a doorpost, but to seal a heart. He creates a new Body, a new people of God, and he enacts a new covenant, signed with his own sacrifice. Then he throws himself on the mercy– or lack thereof– of his enemies, refusing to meet their violence with violence, offering forever a different Way to live and serve and die, in service to the Holy, out of love for the broken.
That’s beautiful, human, pastoral, Divine, tender, daring, spiritual, theological… and it’s also political. And communion remains political to this day. In the moment of the Eucharist, we remember what Jesus did and who he was, we proclaim his victory in the face of the world’s violence and the crushing weight of sin, and we envision the Reign of Godthat is a completely different spiritual, social, and political system than anything the world knows. When we hold up the bread and cup, we also hold up another Way.
Communion sets a table in the misdt of the world’s power and proclaims a new kin-dom. Communion says all when the world says some. Communion says whole when the world says broken. What’s more political than proclaiming Christ’s reign in the midst of the world’s power? What’s more political than saying all are invited to the banquet when the world teaches the wealthy and powerful 1% get the feast, and the poor must beg for crumbs?
And so to the charge of allowing communion to speak its political message, a message of wholeness in the midst of the fragmented, of liberation for all the oppressed, of unity in a moment of deep division, of hope for those who have been trod under, of welcome and inclusion for all– most especially for those who were told yet again that their lives and loves are incompatible with the Gospel when nothing could be further from the truth, of peace and healing and love and tenderness from and through a body that has allowed violence and hatred to fester in its heart– to the charge of allowing communion to be political, I plead guilty. And may I be guilty of that for many years to come.
Reflections on Romero
A final comparison has frequently been made in this conversation: the links to Archbishop Oscar Romero, the visionary and prophetic martyr for justice, who was shot to death in his mission field in San Salvador the week after Easter, 1980, just as he turned to the altar to celebrate the Eucharist.
Now I am no Oscar Romero (nor, I must emphatically state, am I suggesting above that I’m Jesus of Nazareth), and much of the theological reflection surrounding Romero and communion comes from his Roman Catholic tradition. However, I too have Roman Catholic roots, and the sacramental theology of sacrifice and witness as linked to the Eucharist resonates strongly with me.
In this 2001 essay, “Dying for the Eucharist or Being Killed by It”, William Cavanaugh explores the links between martyrdom (from Greek, “witness”) and communion. He cites Romero’s decision to hold one Mass in the entire archdiocese the week following the assassination of Rutilio Grande, effectively “forcing” the body to commune together. Cavanaugh writes: “Romero intended the one eucharist to be an anticipation of the kingdom, of the day when rich and poor would feast together, of the day when the body of Christ would not be wounded by divisions… Under these circumstances, the single mass also served to illumine and to judge the ongoing divisions between rich and poor. The single mass, just like the martyrs, did not create conflict, but rather shone a light on it and revealed the truth about it.”
Like Pastor Mack, Cavanaugh ties this conversation about the meaning of communion to Paul’s words in the first Letter to the Corinthians about “discerning the body” as an important criteria for receiving communion in the proper spirit. Cavanaugh writes, “Discerning the body must mean being able to identify truthfully where the body is not whole, where divisions exist.” You see, breaking bread in the midst of the broken is not a failure to discern the body, but a proper response to it. To break the bread and deny the brokenness in the body, that, Cavanaugh claims (and I agree), is a failure to discern the Body of Christ in all its messy complexity.
Fortunately, our eucharistic communion gives us hope that this is not the final word. Besides shining a light on the divisions that exist, discerning the body includes an exercise in dissolving those divisions, blurring the lines between “them” and “us.” In the body of Christ, Paul continues to tell the Corinthians, people are distinguished from each other, not by class or race or nationality, but by charisms given them by the Holy Spirit. Each has a different role to play in the service of the whole, and the weakest members are the most indispensable, to be treated with the greatest honor. Therefore, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Cor 12:26). The eucharist gives us hope by helping us to discern the deep reality that all people are members or potential members of the body of Christ. The body of Christ transgresses artificial national borders that separate the United States from El Salvador or Iraq.
That is the truth I hope I lifted up on May 3, in an act of worship, prayer, and witness. By naming the division and brokenness in the body and refusing to sweep it under the rug, but choosing instead to stand in the very heart of that brokenness, I hope I was part of God’s reminder to all people: no matter how much we tear at each other, no matter how divided, no matter how vile our treatment of our siblings in Christ who are GLBTQ is, this division is not an act of God. Violence, oppression, hatred, bigotry, ignorance, apathy, and holier-than-thou piety are not acts of God. Scheming and manipulation and infighting and vote counting are not acts of God. Weaving the broken and whole together, drawing the circle wider than human arms can reach, extending forgiveness and grace that are never warranted or earned, casting a vision of a more radical, more inclusive kin-dom than the world can possibly imagine, this is God’s work, and the work to which Christ’s Body is called.
May we remember. Not to simply call to our minds. To reflect– and by reflect I mean as a mirror– the life and witness of Christ. May we relive and retell and re-be the Body, broken and whole, the life poured out for the world. Every time we break the bread and share the cup, we proclaim a victory, we offer ourselves as a sacrifice alongside Christ, and we re-member his fragmented yet gloriously whole Body.
In addition to being proud of my state, I am proud to be part of a denomination that takes a strong stance against the death penalty.
On the subject of capital punishment, The United Methodist Church says:
We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings. The United Methodist Church is deeply concerned about crime throughout the world and the value of any life taken by a murder or homicide. We believe all human life is sacred and created by God and therefore, we must see all human life as significant and valuable. When governments implement the death penalty (capital punishment), then the life of the convicted person is devalued and all possibility of change in that person’s life ends. We believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and that the possibility of reconciliation with Christ comes through repentance. This gift of reconciliation is offered to all individuals without exception and gives all life new dignity and sacredness. For this reason, we oppose the death penalty (capital punishment) and urge its elimination from all criminal codes.
(2008 UMC Book of Discipline, accessed online here)
This powerful and prophetic stance of my denomination reflects both our deep commitment to grace– the possibility that people can be transformed and forgiven, even after the most terrible actions, and our commitment to restorative justice– the belief that healing for the victims, survivors, and perpetrators of violence comes not through punishment and perpetuating the cycles of anger, pain, and violence, but through building new life and new relationship out of the ashes of past injury. Of restorative justice, we say:
Most criminal justice systems around the world are retributive. These retributive justice systems profess to hold the offender accountable to the state and use punishment as the equalizing tool for accountability. In contrast, restorative justice seeks to hold the offender accountable to the victimized person, and to the disrupted community. Through God’s transforming power, restorative justice seeks to repair the damage, right the wrong, and bring healing to all involved, including the victim, the offender, the families, and the community. The Church is transformed when it responds to the claims of discipleship by becoming an agent of healing and systemic change.
(2008 UMC Book of Discipline, accessed online here)
Most importantly, both the opposition to capital punishment and the practice of restorative justice stand in the legacy of the biblical witness and the life and teachings of Jesus, and are echoed by the giants of non-violence (Christian and not) such as Gandhi and King. For Christians in general and United Methodists in particular, Christ’s example of radical forgiveness is a challenge and a model toward which we strive. For those who consider themselves non religious or participants in other spiritual and religious traditions, the witness of great moral teachers and the desire to live with compassion and love lead us in the same direction.
People of faith and believers in love have an opportunity to speak a powerful word of challenge to the world: it is not easy to forgive and to find healing and restoration after terrible violence, but it is the hope to which we are called.
I’m proud to live in a state that does not have the death penalty. I’m a staunch pacifist, and I believe that nonviolence isn’t weakness, but requires profound strength. It is by no means easy.
Vermont State Police arrested a couple yesterday, and charged them with second degree murder in the death of Melissa Jenkins. Allen and Patricia Prue allegedly worked together to lure Miss Jenkins out of her home, calling to ask her for assistance with their vehicle. Mr. Prue confessed to strangling the young woman outside her vehicle and then the couple allegedly worked together to dispose of her body and other evidence.
What they have done is beyond belief, defies understanding. It literally disgusts me. There’s no apparent motive, just deranged behavior, cold-blooded and brutal slaughter. It’s inhuman. On the simplest, most reactionary level of myself, I want to see them suffer for what they did to Melissa and to her son, Ty.
But wanting them to suffer and actually advocating for it, making it happen, are entirely different things. That difference, thin a line as it may be to walk, represents for me the fullness of what it means to live with compassion, temperance, justice, and love. It is what it means to be human and to yearn for the Holy.
The comments sprout up wherever the stories about Melissa Jenkins and the Prues are posted, calling for mob justice for Melissa’s killers (“string them up in the streets!”), advocating torture, hoping for them to be strangled as Miss Jenkins was strangled, and bemoaning the fact that Vermont does not have the death penalty. Again, I don’t begrudge anyone those feelings. They come from our deep sense of moral outrage at a senseless and unthinkable crime. They bubble up out of our shared humanity and the horror of how profoundly the Prues violated the injunction to care for and protect our fellow human beings.
But we cannot become the sort of monsters who act out of our most primal instincts. That accomplishes nothing. That doesn’t separate us from the alleged murders.
I categorically oppose the death penalty. My opposition falls into two main categories.
1. The death penalty does not serve any practical purpose. It does not save money to execute criminals as compared to housing them in prisons for the durations of their lives. This is because of the lengthy (and often economically and racially biased) appeals process associated with convicted inmates on death row. Furthermore, it does not deter people from committing murder, as most murders are committed by people who are either criminally insane (and therefore incapable of grasping and being deterred by consequences), or in the heat of passion (and are therefore not thinking about consequences and not deterred by them).
But more importantly in my opinion,
2. The death penalty does not enact justice, and reduces the community seeking justice to the same level as the killers.
It’s not that we are holier-than-thou. We’re not. As I said in my post earlier this week, the fact that we all have to face is that this evil we are confronting, this instinct or propensity toward violence, is in all of us. From that post: “We are the unknown killer[s] on the roadside, separating a mother from a child, snuffing a life because we can. We are the mob before Pilate, along the road to Calvary, jeering at the foot of the cross.” Somewhere deep in our reptilian, fight or flight brains, we all have the potential to be monsters.
What makes us human, what makes us better than our brokenness, is the choice to act not out of that base, reactionary brain. What makes us a human family, a people of faith in something other or more than our own fears and faults, is the choice to live out of love.
We think, in the moment, that vengeance is justice, that it is fair to give to others what they have dished out. Even when we can acknowledge that killing the killers cannot bring back the victims, we can’t help but think it would feel really good to see that kind of retribution served. If everybody in the Northeast Kingdom got to watch the painful execution of Allen and Patricia Prue and then dance around in a modern day Purim ritual, we think that might help us heal. But the truth is, it won’t. Time will help us heal. Compassion will help us heal. Helping Melissa’s family and her son Ty (for example, there is a trust fund set up here) will help us heal. Learning to somehow trust again enough to pull our cars over and lend a helping hand– and I tell you, that will take some time for me– will help us heal.
I said on Monday that there is something stronger than violence and death and despair: Love. Love has the power to pull us up out of the darkness, away from the worst of ourselves. But we have to let it. For people of faith, we have to ask ourselves: if our religion doesn’t make us better people, doesn’t challenge us to rise above instinct, what good is it? If God– whose nature is Love– doesn’t make us more loving, then what sort of god do we serve?
We aren’t any different from the murder suspects unless we choose to be.
Will you join me in calling for justice– seasoned with temperance– for Melissa’s killers?
Last week was one such example. I was feeling like “church” was an old, dead concept (I still think this, at least in the way most of us think about church), and that progressives/liberals like myself would have no space whatsoever in the spiritual culture of the future– I even uttered the phrase “Maybe Rick Santorum is right; there are no liberal Christians.” I contemplated entering my backup profession, tending bar, since I would still lend a listening ear, be around people, and have an excuse to mix a mean martini.
But yesterday, more than 3,700 people read a blog post of mine, more than tripling the previous record for most-active day on this blog. And this was not a post about some of the things I normally yammer on about that drum up controversy: homosexuality and abortion and racism and church metrics (hey it drums up *some* controversy).
This was a post about faith. It was a spiritual response to tragedy in my community, and I discussed evil and violence, hope and love, and the need to cling to something stronger and truer than the worst of ourselves: Love, which I name as a synonym for God. I didn’t tone down or hide what I believe and how I understand faith. These are my actual spiritual beliefs.
And apparently, I’m not alone. Like, in a big way not alone. People from my church and other churches, people from my community and other communities, self-professed atheists and agnostics and practitioners of all sorts of different spiritual beliefs read the post, shared the post, emailed and commented and said my words touched them, spoke to them.
And that touched *me.*
Sometimes I feel like I’m one of the only ones who thinks faith can be something other than adhering to a set of laws, and screaming those laws at other people until they adhere to them too, that faith is not so much about what we think, but who we are and how we live, and that the things we name as sacred: God, love, the human heart, the gift of the natural world around us, the power and vastness of the cosmos– that these are all really the same thing, and we call them by different names. But in drawing together around the tragedy of Melissa Jenkins’ death, you all have shown me that none of us are alone. In my extended circle of connection, there are more than 4,000 5,000 people (between yesterday and today) who believe in the power and sacredness of love to conquer over fear and pain, like little ripples of hope spreading out. We’re a megachurch without the churchy part, a living body of heart and soul, bound by compassion and tenderness and fragile hope in the face of terror. We represent a new spirituality, one that lifts up the ways we are connected, not the ways we are apart.
You may not dig on Jesus like I do. That’s okay. It’s never been my goal to convert others to what I believe. It is my goal to build connection between hearts and other hearts, and between those hearts and what is holy and sacred and life-giving and true. It is my belief that faith in anything should inspire us to be better versions of ourselves and to live together with more tenderness and compassion and justice. In this tragedy, and in all the tragedies and triumphs to come, you all have reminded me that we are stronger because we are together, and no one who holds on to the hope in Love does so alone.