By Rev. Kim Jenne
When I first heard about the making of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), I complained to anyone that would listen that Batman and Superman cannot fight, insisting, “They’re friends!” Besides, everyone knows Superman could squash Batman like a bug (#teamsuperman). Then, the premiere of Captain America: Civil War (2016) furthered my discomfort. My brother tried to school me on Marvel’s 2006 Civil War series, but I left the conversation disquieted. Superheroes were supposed to be united not divided. They were good guys after all.
The comic book universe was good cultural background for the denominational in-fighting, otherwise known as the United Methodist General Conference, our every four-year gathering to discuss matters of doctrine, polity and life together. As the conference rambled on, tensions increased, normally compassionate people grew agitated, arguments mounted, frustration erupted, tempers rose, emotions boiled over, character attacks began, and tears rolled. First, Captain America and Iron Man, now all the people I know to be friends were fighting. What’s going on?
Civil War is not simply a story about political power and authority. According to NPR’s Linda Holmes, it’s “about how people behave toward each other when they disagree on matters of extraordinary importance.”
Our most recent session of General Conference can be characterized in similar terms, with the body reaching an almost stalemate in how to move forward around inclusion related to human sexuality. Add to this the public microscope under which the United Methodist Church often finds itself as the third-largest faith group in the U.S. Apply the complexity of 12.7 million members worldwide, approximately 30 percent of whom reside on the African continent, and you’ve got yourself quite the spectacle, particularly if watching online.
The #umcgc Twitter feed alone made me wince with discomfort as Methodist and non-Methodist spectators, as well as a few trolls, offered running commentary on the proceedings. I kept waiting for a delegate from the floor to look directly into the camera and cry in the booming voice of Gladiator’s Maximus, “Are you not entertained?!” I personally couldn’t look away.
At one point, a character in Civil War says ominously that an empire toppled by its enemies can be rebuilt, but one that tears itself apart on its own is dead forever. Turns out this is true for things much closer to home than empires. As I watched the proceedings, I found myself wondering how badly we would tear each other apart all the while knowing, that for the most part, we agreed upon the essentials – love and faith in Jesus Christ and that our work, as the Church, is primarily to make disciples of that same Christ for the transformation of the world. Could we demonstrate to the world that it is possible to fundamentally disagree on something and yet still remain in loving relationship with one another? Could we assume the best of each other even when not understanding the other’s perspective? Could our profound disagreements not sour into hostility or even worse, antipathy? Into hurled insults against one’s faith in Jesus? Into trolling? Into blocking on Facebook and Twitter?
The day before the human sexuality petitions were to be addressed, a motion was made and strongly approved by the delegates asking the Council of Bishops to offer leadership and a way forward. The bishops accepted the challenge and they shared a response with specific recommendations. The body voted to accept the recommendation and to work together to review all of the denomination’s statements on sexuality. For some in our tribe, this was not enough progress. They have been waiting too long already for the church they love to acknowledge giftedness for ministry regardless of sexual orientation and that the UMC’s statements or lack thereof on the value and worth of all people does violence. For them, this is an issue of discrimination, not sexuality, plain and simple. For others, it was a proven sign that the UMC is moving toward full inclusion and stepping away from the traditional teaching around relationships. For them, this is a dangerous and slippery slope that puts the Church at salvific risk.
Just two short weeks after General Conference, the people of the United Methodist Church in Missouri gathered for annual conference in Springfield. It was a spirit-filled weekend bookended by the two sacraments of the Church: Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. We admitted the tension in our own ranks, named the heartbreak on both sides, remembered our baptisms, recommitted ourselves to Christ through the Wesleyan Covenant prayer, honored the deaths of those who had served, gave thanks for the new lives being offered, received grace freely given through the gifts of water, bread, and the cup, realized the power of touch and community through the laying on of hands as we wrapped our Bishop and his family in prayer. We laughed. We cried. We celebrated. We learned. We remembered. We hoped. And, that’s when it hit me. The difference between superheroes fighting and friends fighting. Allied superheroes are united by circumstance (a peculiarity of DNA or their pocketbooks and a good dose of revenge). My Methodist friends, on the other hand, are united by covenant to God and to one another.
We are united by choice. We freely said Yes and made promises during baptism after baptism that we would “stick,” that we would be there when that child needed us. We confessed our sin and passed the peace with neighbors before walking together to the table for much needed grace shared in the bread and the wine. We read and studied the Bible together knowing that every time we read scripture we die a little and are born to anew. We chose to become united, knowing that it would never be easy. We chose to be in covenant with one another.
It is not mere circumstance that we are united. We are people born of blood and water and bound together by covenant. And I think that is why it hurts so much when we fight. We asked for this. To be in covenant relationship with each other means, inevitably, one of us will hurt, disappoint or betray the other. We will disagree. We will fight. Perhaps the best part of the recent conversations related to human sexuality is the willingness of all parties to admit the pain and broken-heartedness related to our varied understandings. Even this seemed to be a step forward by acknowledging the pain of those on both sides of the theological divide who feel betrayed by their beloved United Methodist Church.
If you have been in relationship long enough with someone, disagreements are bound to take place. I’ve discovered that when friends fight, it’s not about winning or losing. It’s about forgiving and moving forward, hopefully more closely-knit together because of a heightened awareness of how dangerously fragile relationships are, how tender our hearts can be, and knowing what is at stake in walking away for good.
It’s not only the comic book universe that has delved into the matter of how relationships survive (or don’t) when fundamentally disagreeing on important things. The musical phenomena Hamilton offers the fictionalization narrative of two historical people who for the most part like each other yet end up fighting to the death.
At the end of the musical, Aaron Burr reflects on the flaws of his victory over Alexander Hamilton. He sings: “I was too young and blind to see, I should have known / I should have known the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me.” Burr acknowledges “that once mostly-allies allow themselves to become enemies, even winning is terrible, because you’ve only defeated someone you needed.”
It seems to me that most of the United Methodists in Missouri have come to a similar conclusion. We have discovered that winning in this instance is terrible because it means you have only defeated someone you needed, a fellow brother and sister in Christ, someone in whom you have covenanted to support and love, to forgive, and to hold in prayer. Perhaps, we realize what is at stake in walking away for good. Or, maybe it’s because the chords of “And Are We Yet Alive?” still hang sweetly in the air and I can still feel the huddled mass of us all praying for the Holy Spirit to guide our Church and our Bishop into a new season of life, that I so desperately want to be able to “see each other’s face” year after year despite our fighting and because of our loving. May it be so.