Demonizing the Other Side: The Last Temptations of the UMC

by | Mar 13, 2019 | 15 comments

Jesus survived the temptations of the wilderness because of his spiritual grounding and his guidance by God. Another factor empowered him as well: his emotional intelligence. Jesus had his wits about him. He never could have survived otherwise.
The UMC faces its own set of temptations as we threaten to implode or explode over General Conference proceedings. We too need our wits about us.
The UMC faces its own set of temptations as we threaten to implode or explode over General Conference proceedings. We too need our wits about us. Click To Tweet
A hidden opportunity awaits us in this timeline. These 40+ days give us time to think instead of react and time to pray instead of stew. It gives us time to gather our wits about us. So that we can address the last temptations of the UMC in a calmer fashion.
This week I want to address the temptation of demonizing the other side.
Reactions to General Conference have included: THAT side is against love. THEY are against me. Clearly, THEY don’t want me, so I’m outta here. I am done with church, done with organized religion, done with people like THAT.
Or on the other side: THAT side is godless, THEY worship at the altar of human preference, THEY have abandoned the Bible, and the authority of Scripture. Clearly, God’s will was done through General Conference. God wants for things to be this way.
Demonizing the other side feels empowering, but it’s a temptation we can ill afford to entertain. The truth is many factors came into play at General Conference. Let’s see what we can tease out.
Factor 1: Our will, not God’s will. In the Bible, Jesus is explicit that humans must decide how to interpret the scripture. Not only that, Heaven will go along with what we decide. This principle is captured in Matthew 16:19 “I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.  Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” So, when it comes to General Conference decisions, we’re not so much looking at God’s will but at the will of the delegates we elected. We must take responsibility for our theologies and votes, not ascribe them to God. In this case, the will of the General Conference was to pass the amended Traditional Plan. It received 438 yes votes (53 percent) and 384 no votes (47 percent).
Factor 2: The will of the body can change. Two thirds of US delegates were in favor of the One Church Plan. Even though the One Church Plan didn’t pass, a mere 54 votes separated the two sides. From a numbers perspective, that’s an astonishingly narrow margin for a global church. It says to me that The UMC has come a mighty long way in its ability to accept people where they are.
Factor 3: Cultural understandings vary. According to reports I’ve heard, two thirds to three quarters of the International delegates were in favor of the Traditional or Modified Traditional Plan. Why the insistence on a traditional view when the One Church Plan would have safeguarded people’s dignity of choice? The answers are as varied as the delegates. Some international delegates were under the impression that the One Church Plan would have required them to accept LGBTQ pastors. How and why did they get that idea? Were they intentionally misinformed? Others were told that they could not return home if they didn’t vote for the Traditional Plan.
Factor 4: Becoming a global church. In addition to the above, consider this. This year, the General Conference consisted of 58% US and 43% International delegates. That’s a real shift from previous years. Now put these two sets of figures together and you can see why things came out so tight. As Bonnie Ives Marden, head of the New England Delegation and author of Church Finances for Missional Leaders: Best Practices for Faithful Stewardship likes to say, “We are a global church without a global business plan.”
Factor 5: Context matters. Since discussions about full inclusion of LGBTQ folks in the UMC began, gay marriage has become legal in the US. The rights of LGBTQs to marry has gained wide acceptance in our country. In light of these developments, restricting church leadership of LGBTQ folks in the US feels harsher and less just than ever before to many people. Meanwhile, the mere fact of being homosexual is outlawed in some other countries, punishable by death. Both contexts are very hurtful for a wide swath of people.   But the US context heightens the sense of injustice and impatience with the Traditional Plan.
The bottom line is that many of us were hurt and deeply discouraged by the recent General Conference. At the same time, others of us felt calmed, satisfied, even justified. Untold numbers are somewhere in between. Because we are church people, it’s easy to theologize our differences. And to demonize those with whom we disagree. As in, “God is on OUR side, not THEIR side.”
Demonizing the other side is a temptation we must avoid. The truth is, we are a church in transition. Instead of reacting, we can gather our wits about us, think, pray and practice the Platinum Rule.

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  1. Kimal James

    Rebekah, thanks for the good thoughts–as always! You are so right that we must be careful not to demonize the other side. And it’s good that you keep a hopeful spirit about all this. When you speak of a mere 54 votes difference, however, I think we must also realize that there were 31 international delegates who didn’t make it to General Conference due to not receiving a travel visa. If those 31 had been there, the difference could have been as much as 85 votes more for the Traditional Plan. In the future of our global church, this difference will likely increase even more. This makes me wonder how we can live with each other in one UMC when there are such different perspectives and needs.

    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      You know, Kim, I was thinking about that too. I wonder how the additional delegates would have voted? While we can’t know, I do know this: the world continues to move more toward more justice, more inclusion, and more love. I stand in hope.

  2. Tammy Whitney

    Thank you Rebekah for opening the conversation. We can not be salt of the earth when we dig in on a side and stop listening to one another. From Matthew 5:9. – blessed are the peacemakers…..

    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      Thank you Tammy. Good to hear from you. Great Kingdom quote. Plus there’s that whole thing about the log and the splinter…

  3. Rene Perez

    Thanks Rebekah. Great reminder for all of us United Methodist to take the higher road, as our bishop often reminds us.

    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      I’ll be the first to admit that it’s hard to do, Rene. I had my own gut-level reactions when the votes came in. I tossed and turned all the next night wondering what my response should be. Then I remembered…I have all these tools of emotional intelligence that I teach. Time to practice what I preach! Turns out I’m not the only one who needs them. I think the 40+ days is a real gift to us.

  4. Effie McAvoy

    In theory this is great. However when it is your life…your call…your being that is up for discussion with little to no input from “you” it becomes another conversation. NO we do not demonize…still I assure you that I am compatible with Christian teaching. I am a follower of Jesus Christ and the language of the Discipline does serious harm. And when injustice happened Jesus did cleanse the temple.

    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      Thanks for weighing in, Effie, and for the eloquent language, “I assure you I am compatible with Christian teaching.” I agree. It kills me that you even have to defend yourself. My concern is that no one demonize YOU.

    • Bonnie I. Marden

      My beloved sister in Christ, thank you for your service and witness – you are a blessing to me and to this movement seeking to embody the beloved community.
      CCR teaching includes the power of words – and our ability to reframe. True- the words in the BOD do serious harm – to those excluded and those excluding. As have other words in the past and likely others will be pointed out to us in the future. We also give those words more power than they deserve at times – they were written by people – fallible angry fearful people whose vision is as clouded as those who excluded (exclude) women and new voices, young persons and others parts of God’s diverse creation.
      CCR also teaches reframing which can liberate us from harm – either from words or from our personal stories. That is how we transcend our fears and actually find we can love our enemies (oh, that is Track 2 stuff!) As I have been challenged myself, I invite you to be a voice that says – Here I am – beloved child of God – deal with it!

  5. Beth Anne Crego

    Thanks Rebekah for using the word demonizing. It is so true. We are willing to see the other as low down and rotten… instead as seeing them as a beloved child of God. My prayer and goal is to keep people talking and looking at the other as someone valuable and worthy… not as an adversary. (Of course… I am preaching to myself!)

    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      I hear you Beth Anne. It’s easy to fall into the trap of demonizing. We’re not responsible for our first thought, but we are responsible for our second and third thoughts and beyond, and the words that come out of our mouths. Thanks for being willing to practice what you preach.

  6. Rev. John A. Bright

    Trying to make sense of your factor 1 – our Bishops asked millions of UMs to pray “Thy will be done.” According to you – we wasted our time. Why?
    I have never heard Matt. 16:19 used to make the point that we decide what is right and heaven must confirm it. In Matt. 18 these words follow Jesus instructions on church discipline.
    I will be unsubscribing.

    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      Hi John, I realize you might not see this, but others may have the same question, so I do want to respond. In Matthew 16:19, Jesus quotes a popular “targum.” A targum is a paraphrase or explanation of a sacred Jewish text. The “targum” Jesus is quoting affirms the human freedom to choose: “Whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is loosed in heaven.” Jesus affirms our power of choice saying, Look, when it comes to matters of interpretation, you, the church, get to decide. You work it out; heaven will go along. Targumim (plural) date from the century prior to the birth of Christ. While it may seem blasphemous or presumptuous to think that we decide, we live out this principle whenever we decide how to interpret and apply a certain biblical text. It’s also at the heart of the Methodist quadrilateral. Adam Hamilton’s blog lays out some of the history of interpretation pretty clearly. I hope this helps.

  7. E B Beasley Jr

    You write a very reasoned and well-thought-out piece. I agree with most of what you said. However, while you never demonized the other side (following your own advice!), you consistently seemed to place the blame for things on the Conservatives/Traditionalists. It feels like you are taking a slap at us each time you make a point. Does it mean that “everything” is the fault of the Traditional or Conservative people and that the Progressives or Liberals have “clean hands? ”
    This weakens your place in my mind and makes it harder to truly listen to you because you keep adding your arguments as you dismiss what you perceive to be “the other side.”
    For Instance:
    * It says to me that the UMC has come a mighty long way in its ability to accept people where they are. (This is what the Progressives say and it completely misrepresents what most (?) Many(?) Traditionalists believe!)
    * How and why did they get that idea? Were they intentionally misinformed? Others were told that they could not return home if they didn’t vote for the Traditional Plan. (This lays everything at the feet of the Traditionalists!)
    * The truth is, we are a church in transition. (Always! BUT, in which direction and how far? Your paragraph is clearly the Progressive/Liberal position, which means that the blame is on the Traditionalist/Conservative side.)
    I believe that you are a good, God-loving person and probably have a great and powerful ministry, for which I give thanks. But the clear bias of this writing seriously hurts the points that you want to make – to this reader anyway.
    I invite you to re-think the article and re-present it with a more-open, more accepting stance. Demonizing is a MAJOR issue, but so is being one-sided and dismissive when you are trying to make a point that should be neutral.
    Having said that, I do thank you for the point that you make. I do believe it, even if I have my issues with the way you present it.
    Yours in His love,
    Dr. E.B. Beasley, Jr.
    Pastor, Texas Annual Conference

    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      Dr. Beasley, thanks for weighing in. Yes, you may be right. It’s hard to be completely even-handed especially when I am passionate about my beliefs. (I have been open about being a proponent of the One Church Plan.) I suspect that’s a challenge for most of us. Please accept this blog as a step in the right direction.



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