Monday, April 30, 2012

Acts of Repentance and Costly Discipleship

 On Thursday, April 27, the United Methodist News Service reported an “Act of Repentance toward Healing Relationships with Indigenous Peoples” by those attending the UM General Conference meeting in Tampa, Florida. 

Native American theologian, George Tinker, told almost a thousand delegates in this quadrennial meeting of the denomination’s top legislative assembly
“If United Methodists are serious about repenting for past injustices against native peoples, they must prepare for a long and painful journey.”
As he stood alone on the stage holding a traditional feather fan, he told stories of Native Americans being hurt in the name of Christianity.
One particular dark spot in United Methodist history is the Sand Creek Massacre. A Methodist pastor was ordered by a Methodist governor to kill more than 160 mostly women, children and elderly at Sand Creek. The massacre occurred a month after the Native Americans surrendered. “That is the history we have to deal with,” Tinker said, “Not just Sand Creek, but Christian conquest of North America.”
Representatives of the United Methodist Council of Bishops shared the council’s own statement of sorrow and commitment to repentance.
“We are here to commit ourselves to addressing the wrong and asking for the forgiveness of those who have been wronged by failing them so profoundly.”
There is much for those who are living today to learn about this sorrowful history of injustice. If this “act of repentance” generates a new honesty and broader awareness, then in my view, the time of the General Conference was well spent.

I found it ironic that the “act of repentance” followed two days after a time of “holy conferencing” [Methodist jargon for a serious and respectful conversation] about policies of the UMC on homosexuality. Those policies may be summarized:
“The United Methodist Church officially affirms the sacred worth of every person, regardless of sexual orientation. The denomination condemns homosexuality as incompatible with Christian teaching, and it forbids the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals and the performance of same-gender unions by its clergy and in its churches.”
According to many who participated, the “conferencing” was anything but “holy.” Advocates for equal rights without regard for sexual orientation were sometimes bullied, scorned, and not given time to speak.

A gay delegate from New Jersey, Mark Miller, was later given the privilege of the assembly floor and said,
“The need for authentic conversation about human sexuality is so important. However, the process that we attempted yesterday failed us. It failed because of our lack of leadership and oversight, because the process did not respect people and didn’t plan for the care of those who were hurt by the process.”
The next night on April 26, as delegates left the closing worship, they had to walk between rows of demonstrators who quietly lined the hall and steps outside the assembly area in the Tampa Convention Center. One held up a chain with 40 links, one for each year since 1972 when the General Conference began adopting policies that discriminate against gays and lesbians.

After most of the delegates had left, the demonstrators began singing softly,
“We are gentle, angry people, and we are singing, singing for our lives.”
Maybe it was just me when I read about it, but maybe there were others who juxtaposed the “act of repentance” for what was done to Native Americans with the un-“holy conferencing” about the discrimination against gays and lesbians. Perhaps they also wondered how many years would pass before a similar “act of repentance” at General Conference would ask forgiveness for this discrimination.

Why did it take so many years to have this “act of repentance” for what was done to Native Americans? It seems inconceivable, but is it possible that too many people called Methodist over the years didn’t acknowledge the wrongs done to Native Americans by people of their tradition?

Why did it take so many years to have an “act of repentance” for this institution’s toleration of the institution of slavery and the segregation that followed it?

Has there yet been an “act of repentance” for what state laws against inter-racial marriage did to the families of such marriages?

The great Italian astronomer, mathematician, and physicist, Galileo (1564-1642) was born just twenty-one years after the death of Copernicus. It was through his persistent investigation of the natural laws that he laid the foundations for modern experimental science. But that was not all. What he saw through his telescopes – he was the real inventor of them – plus his mathematical calculations led him to conclude that Copernicus was right: the earth is not the center of the universe.
For that scientific conclusion, which was in conflict with the Church's worldview, Galileo’s writings were condemned and he was put under house arrest for the rest of his life in a vain attempt to prevent the spread of his dangerous ideas.

The Roman Catholic Church took over three hundred and fifty years to rescind the action against Galileo by the Inquisition taken in 1633.

Will it be that long before an “act of repentance” for the years of discrimination against gays, lesbians, and trans-gender people is solemnly conducted at a United Methodist General Conference?

From the beginning, Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer not only spoke loudly against Hitler’s rule, but in April of 1933, Bonhoeffer raised the first and virtually only voice at the time for church resistance to Hitler's persecution of Jews. He declared that the church must not simply "bandage the victims under the wheel, but jam a stick into the spokes of the wheel itself.”

To have an “act of repentance” so long after the sin/crime that there is no real possibility of making things right with those wronged is what Bonhoeffer might have called “cheap grace.” Bandaging the wounds of victims hurt by the wheel of injustice is essential, but Bonhoeffer reminds us that there comes a time to “jam a stick into the spokes of the wheel itself.” That, he might say, is “costly discipleship;” and Bonhoeffer would know. Where is that voice at the General Conference?

- Milo Thornberry