“Time won’t leave me as I am, but time won’t take the boy out of this man”--”City of Blinding Lights”, U2

Friday, September 09, 2005

Venice UMC-Sheehan Discussion Post-Mortem, Part 2

I had planned to make some final observations in response to the Rev. Tom Zeigert (pastor of Venice (CA) UMC). Tom graciously emailed (here and here) after I inquired about an event held at Venice UMC in April of this year. Before I was finished with that response, Dean Snyder (who has the coolest named Methoblog) has written and linked to these series of posts. I ended up combining my response to Tom Zeigert with a response to Dean Snyder. This had made for a VERY long post. I hope you’ll stick around and read the whole thing. (I just hope my English Comp teacher doesn’t find this blog, she’s liable to collapse in disgust and shame at having passed me in her class).

As I commented here on his blog, I agree with Dean for the most part but have a few points that I would like to quibble with him. Dean Snyder titles his post with the question: “Is Opposing War Partisan?” and opens with the statement: “Tim Sisk has raised the issue of whether opposing the War in Iraq is a partisan political activity.”

My first “quibble” is that I find the title and the first sentence to be (unintentionally) unfair to me and my series of posts. The title of the post comes pretty close to a “loaded question” in that it is a question with a disputed supposition. I didn’t make the claim that opposing war is a partisan activity, nor did I make the claim that opposing the War in Iraq is a partisan political activity. I did, however, over the course of these postings make essentially three points regarding the Venice UMC-Sheehan Event:

1. There should be a disconnect between partisan, political activity and the activity of the church.

2. The Venice UMC April 2005 event was a partisan, political activity (for specific reasons which I’ll reiterate below.)

3. There was no condemnation or pastoral response that recognized the absence of the language of love in Sheehan’s remarks (the only speech at the event that I have found posted online).

The reason this is bothersome for me is that I intentionally didn’t say what Dean suggests I said. I wrote to Tom Zeigert (posted here):

As I mentioned in my email to you and the post of my blog, my interest isn't to debate the issue of the Iraq war. Perhaps part of our struggles in becoming faithful disciples might involve in doing such a thing, but I'm choosing not to do that at this time or in this forum. I think we can agree, though, that war is always less than God's perfect will.
I did conclude that their event was partisan political activity:
I think one could defend a speaker list of people opposed to war in general. A speaker list that only includes those who are opposed to the Iraq war is troublesome. (What can be the harm in hearing from people who support the war?) A speaker list that includes people who not only oppose the war but who have very publicly expressed anti-Bush sentiment is absolutely indefensible and tendentious.
Admittedly my writing style is muddy (I’m more of an oral communicator) and working to improve my writing is one of the reasons I started blogging. My intention was to make a rhetorical point. A speaker list of people opposed to war in general would be defensible in that it is well within accepted and widely agreeable Christian thinking. A speaker list that only includes those opposed to a particular war would be troublesome (but not partisan and political) in that it limits a full and free expression of ideas, which is why I asked parenthetically, “What can be the harm in hearing from people who support the war”. I had in mind people who find the casus belli of that war to be just as well as the conduct of that war. (I’ll address Dean’s point that not all viewpoints are equal in the church below. ) It is the next sentence where I reveal the tipping point, “A speaker list of those who not only oppose the war but have very publicly expressed anti-Bush sentiment is absolutely indefensible and tendentious.” Here the language of “only” (i.e. exclusively), “those” (i.e. plural), and “publicly expressed anti-Bush sentiment” (anti-Bush) are particularly important to my point.

I can imagine a scenario where Sheehan is invited to speak at the church, say, next month. I might expect sharp language from her (hopefully not of the sort she used in the April 19 event). Even if she were strongly anti-Bush, I wouldn’t say that the church hosting her was guilty of partisan, political activity. This is, after all, one person’s speech. In the Venice UMC event, a panel of speakers were anti-Bush. The plurality of speakers anti-Bush is one of the tipping points that makes this for me a partisan, political speech.

I would add that Dean Snyder is welcome to come to my church at any time and speak against war in general and against the Iraq War, specifically. Why? There is no history of partisan, political activity in his speeches (unless you have some confessing you want to do Dean *wink*). Anyone that hears him speak or knows that he will be speaking, knows that Dean will be speaking from a faith informed by his understanding of the Bible, Church teachings, experience, and reason. He is not compromised as a partisan, political speaker. No mistaken assumption could be made that hosting him was tacitly or explicitly advocating a political view.

But a conference (or event) featuring the speaker list described above—well that’s a horse of a different color—partisan, political activity.

Second quibble: Snyder writes: “Note that both viewpoints—for and against a war—are not equal within the church… Our bias is against war and against every particular war, even when some may conclude that a particular war is a necessary evil.”. He does this appealing to the Social Principles. I don’t think the Social Principles are as unambiguous with respect to war as Snyder would assert, I think they allow for a just war theology (and I would add that something that is just can’t be evil). I really do think my characterization of war in my first letter to Zeigert captures our teaching a bit more accurately, that is, war is always less than God’s perfect will.

But even if I’m wrong and Dean is right, then I still think his point is problematic. Consider how Dean’s reasoning would work in the following hypothetical scenario:

What if I were a member of Foundry UMC and wanted to host a symposium against same-sex marriage. Would his church favor this event (even if most of his congregation was against it), particularly since this is the teaching of the UMC? [ed--But isn't it true that the Social Principles argue for equal rights under the law for homosexuals? Me: Yeah, but if its clergy can’t preside at a homosexual marriage services, then the only way to reconcile these two views is that the United Methodist Church doesn’t recognize that marriage would fall under the equal rights category for homosexuals.] Here, it would seem, the church has taken the position against civil recognition of marriage.

I can’t speak for Dean on this, but I can imagine his church inveighing about such a conference. I can’t imagine his church believing that it needn’t be balanced in favor of presenting just such a view. And I doubt Foundry's ministers or church board being comfortable with Foundry hosting and promoting such an event.

I certainly don’t need to remind Dean the arguments that many made when the homosexual prohibitions were entered originally into the Social Principles was that the Social Principles are not binding upon the church, but are guidelines to describe the general teaching of the church, a view upheld by the Judicial Council with the exception of the homosexual prohibitions.

In my reading of both Tom Zeigert and Dean Snyder, I’ve noticed two curious omissions. Neither Zeigert nor Snyder address the point I raised that Sheehan’s speech was personal and repugnant (read uncharitable or un-loving) and could prevent the church from effectively ministering to at least three people (all of whom where named in the speech and spoken about in a hateful manner). I’ll ask again:

Could this church ever feel like home for them after such an event was organized? And if it cannot, is it truly a church of open minds, open hearts, and open doors if it is closed to these…men?
Why no condemnation of their personal and repugnant remarks Sheehan made about Bush, Cheney, and Wolfowitz? Just read the excerpted paragraphs in my original post. Sheehan clearly moved beyond questioning political positions to language that was personal and hateful. The language of love was clearly absent in her speech. Had the remarks been made in private, particularly in a pastoral care situation, then I would say, fine, it is healthy to let her vent and grieve the death of her son. But in a public forum, sponsored and advertised in the community, and part of a ministry strategy of growing disciples are these comments allowed to stand?

The second curious omission is that neither Tom Zeigert nor Dean Snyder admit to agreeing with me that partisan, political activity in the church is wrong and immoral (and certainly a violation of a church’s tax exempt status in some situations). Either they agree with me or don’t. I think Dean believes that partisan, political activity in the church is wrong. I would like for him to say that it is. Because unless Tom, Dean, and I can agree that it is wrong, then our conversation is pretty much a waste of time. I particularly worry that Tom is unwilling to fully condemn partisan political activity in the church, because if he does then the April 19 event at Venice UMC must be judged.

Further, the omission is important to me in that it is what I was attempting to argue from the beginning. The closest I get to it is this statement from Tom Zeigert:

Your evaluation that the event was partisan is well founded. We had hoped for better.
If you are organizing an event and wish to engage those who might be politically/culturally different from you and you know that there might be some reservation on their part to speak, feeling that your church may not be home for them, the burden lies with you to do everything in your power to insure that those barriers are overcome. To give up when an invitation is declined and to go on with an event that is culturally and politically homogenous only confirms the visceral reservations of the oppositional speakers.

In the South, there is still a cultural/political divide between races. I serve as the president of the local Ministerial Association (predominately white, but does have active minority membership and leadership). You better believe when we plan our ecumenical events, particularly the Community Thanksgiving Service hosted at the largest church building in the city (First Baptist Church [Southern Baptist]) that we make the highest effort to ensure that these cultural differences are put aside. (Last year, our thanksgiving service was preached by an ordained African-American female. She may not have been the first woman or the first African American to preach there, but I’m pretty sure she was the first African-American woman to preach there. Had we not been successful in attracting that participation, I’m sure our response would have been more substantive that “we hoped for better” and I guarantee we would not put the failure to engage on those that didn’t participate (Tom calls it “contempt prior to investigation”). We would have known that it is our failure that they felt unwelcome.

PS: We’ll agree to disagree about Michelle Shocked. You like her because she sings about peace (and that she rocks). I’ll stand by my point that her participation in this particular event was inappropriate in that her recent career has been viciously anti-Bush.

Candidly, I'll confess a short-coming on my part. Even if she weren’t anti-Bush, it is still a little weird to me to have her performing in the church. I’m not saying listening to her is sinful or anything, God forbid. But it just seems to be jarring to me to blend church work with her music. It's not the first time I felt like this so I know its probably a growing point for me. When I was a student at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, I was appointed to student appointment. My Teaching Parish supervisor was a great guy and I learned a lot from him. However, one day in one of our meetings, he told us he had accepted an offer from his credit card company to purchase a bloc of tickets for the Rolling Stones concert coming to Atlanta, who were touring for the first time in years. He bought a bunch of tickets so he could take his youth group to the concert. I just wasn’t sophisticated enough to think it wasn’t just a little weird that this would become a “church event”. My limitation probably informs my perspective with Michelle Shocked performing in the church.

But to the guys of U2, you can perform at my church any time you want...

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