Thursday, May 30, 2013

Leaders Need to Lead

So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.
Exodus 17:4-6

In the wilderness, the people of Israel complained to Moses because they had no water. They cursed him for leading them out of Egypt so that they could die in the desert. Moses complained to God about the complaining of the people. God responded with a promise of water, but only if Moses would lead and “Go ahead of the people.” And when he went ahead, he would find God, “standing there in front of you.”

There are two messages here:
1. God is always leading us into the future.
2. Leaders need to lead.

A few days ago my friends (Facebook friends) at “Believe Out Loud” posted a picture of United Methodist Bishop Martin Mclee and commended him for speaking out against hate crimes. McLee said in part:

“The problem of bias crimes directed at members of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning Community continues. As Christians, we are called to respond. Let us begin by offering prayers for the victims and families of those harmed by hate crimes. I encourage pastors to provide anti-bias leadership by teaching and preaching about the harm of directing violence against anyone.”

In spite of the fact that opposition to hate crimes ought to be a no-brainer, statements condemning such violence are important and necessary. And pastors should give leadership by preaching and teaching about such issues.

I wish that Bishop McLee had shown similar leadership in his pastoral letter regarding the situation of the Rev. Thomas Ogletree who faces a church trial for officiating at the marriage of two gay men. In his letter to the New York Conference of the United Methodist Church, Bishop McLee wrote:

“Many of you may have read the recently published article in The New York Times that centered on same sex marriage and The United Methodist Church. The confidentiality requirements of the complaint process prevent me from discussing the case in detail. However, as is the case on many issues confronting the church today, there are multiple perspectives associated with human sexuality.”

That’s all he said about the issue. The letter went on for several paragraphs saying that the United Methodist Church is concerned about many important issues and that we are not a one issue denomination and we have work to do in the world. All of that is true and right and good. But he basically said nothing about the issue at hand.

Our denominational stance against full equality for our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers is not just a bureaucratic technicality. It has real world consequences. And it does emotional violence to innocent people. Emotional violence is not equivalent to physical violence, but it matters. And the emotional violence of telling people they are “less than” can encourage those who are inclined to be bullies.

Bishop McLee is constrained by the Discipline of the United Methodist Church. And he believes it is his duty to uphold that Discipline by letting the trial process unfold.

But while enforcing the Discipline, he could also say that on this issue it is simply wrong.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Guns in America: Looking at the Numbers

These are those who were enrolled, whom Moses and Aaron enrolled with the help of the leaders of Israel, twelve men, each representing his ancestral house. So the whole number of the Israelites, by their ancestral houses, from twenty years old and upward, everyone able to go to war in Israel—their whole number was six hundred three thousand five hundred fifty. 
Numbers 1:44-46

I love numbers.

From an early age, part of my love of baseball was a love of the numbers. Baseball, more than any other sport, is obsessed with numbers. We don’t just look at the big numbers like batting averages and winning percentages. We look at the numbers inside the numbers: batting average with men on base, or with two strikes, or on the first pitch. We don’t just count strikeouts, we count called strikes and swinging strikes. It’s endless and it’s wonderful.

As a Methodist minister I am required to submit a statistical report every year. We count everything: worship attendance, Sunday School enrollment, Sunday School teachers and Sunday School attendance, numbers of small groups, attendance at small groups, youth groups and youth group leaders, mission groups, Bible studies, and outreach ministries. I confess that I don’t love the statistical reports. The truth is, I hate them. But I still love numbers.

Recently, though, I have been looking at some other numbers that I don’t love at all. There are about 300,000,000 guns in the United States; almost one for every man, woman and child. And the numbers keep increasing. After the Newtown shootings, Americans bought more guns and more ammunition.

According to the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, about 5.5 million new firearms were manufactured in the United States and 95% of them were sold in the United State. In addition, approximately 3.3 million guns were imported. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) ran 16.5 million background checks for gun purchases and only about 78,000 were turned down. Because we have no federal (or state) gun registry, we have no idea whether or not the folks who were turned down already had guns at home. 

Looking at the number of guns and the number of gun sales, and listening to the anecdotes supplied by the NRA about young moms buying guns and taking lessons in how to use them, it seems like the number of Americans owning firearms is continuing to increase, but new polling data says that’s not the whole story. The National Rifle Association has bullied congress into passing laws that make it almost impossible to keep any records at all, so many of the numbers are estimates. 

According to the new polls, it looks like we have two trends going in opposite directions. For the last four decades the number of American households with guns has been steadily declining, while the total number of guns has gone up. In 1973 about 53% of American households had guns. Recently, that number has declined to about 33%. Among younger people, the decline in gun ownership is even more pronounced. 

There are more guns, but fewer gun owners. Fewer people have more guns. If the numbers are accurate, then the average gun owner had about ten weapons. 

We’ll pause for a moment to digest that last bit of data. 

The idea that a small number of people are buying more and more guns is a little scary, but the long term implications are positive. Eventually, we will be able to institute reasonable gun control laws and reduce the number of gun related deaths. If we can’t be like England, maybe we can be like Australia. 

In the meantime, I find myself pondering another number. There are about five million members in the NRA. I am amazed that such a small group can wield such incredible political power. And they are maintaining their influence while taking positions that are increasingly radical. Once they were in favor of universal background checks and now they are against them. They have even resisted preventing people on the terrorist watch list from buying guns. 
The NRA has fewer members than the United Methodist Church in the United States. Admittedly, the numbers are not directly comparable. In the UMC families often have more than one member. In the NRA it’s more likely to be one member per family. And of course, there is some overlap of people who belong to both the UMC and the NRA. But still. 

Everyone is afraid of the NRA. No one is afraid of the United Methodist Church. Part of that is because the NRA has one issue while we have many. And part of it is because the NRA is focused almost exclusively on public policy while we have a much broader range of concerns.

But still. Part of the problem is that we are not nearly as passionate about social justice, or economic inequality, or hungry children, or health care, as the NRA is about guns.

Monday, May 6, 2013

We Are Past the Tipping Point

“Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 
Mark 16:6-7 

As I read the story about the Rev. Dr. Thomas Ogletree, a retired United Methodist clergy person and former dean of Yale Divinity School facing a church trial and possible censure for officiating at the wedding of his gay son, the sound in my head was of that Easter hymn that Christians have sung for more than 300 years., “The Strife Is O’er, the Battle Done.”

The strife is o’er, the battle done,
the victory of life is won;
the song of triumph has begun: 

The powers of death have done their worst,
but Christ their legions have dispersed;
let shouts of holy joy outburst: 

It’s over. We may still be fighting the battles on this one in the United Methodist Church. And the arguments will persist. But it’s over.

Last week Rhode Island voted for marriage equality. We are the last New England state to embrace same sex marriage, so it’s about time. But we are also the most heavily Roman Catholic state in the country. And the legislature voted overwhelmingly in favor of marriage equality in spite of strong opposition from Bishop Thomas Tobin and the Roman Catholic Diocese.

We are beyond the tipping point. It’s over.

For United Methodists, the more critical issue is how we will manage the inevitable change. We need an exit strategy from a position we should never have taken. Our problem is not just that we unwisely declared homosexuality to be “incompatible with Christian teaching” forty years ago, at the same time as the medical people were declaring that homosexuality was not a mental illness. We compounded a bad decision on ethics with an even worse decision on church policy.

In our United Methodist Discipline we declare ourselves to be in favor of lots of wonderful stuff, like environmental stewardship and gun control and economic justice. We are against war and against capital punishment. But in all of those other cases (and many more) there are no penalties for clergy or others who disagree and act on their disagreement. A United Methodist pastor can bless a nuclear submarine without fear of official censure, but he or she cannot celebrate a same sex wedding.

In the New York Times article it notes that the clergy persons who brought the complaint against Dr. Ogletree belong to the “Good News” movement, which the Times calls a “tranditionalist” United Methodist group. They are “tradionalists,” but traditionalism is not our United Methodist tradition. Our tradition is to be what is now called “progressive” Christians. Our tradition is to be forward thinking and forward looking and forward moving.

My guess is that at our next General Conference in 2016 the Discipline will be revised to remove the negative characterization of homosexuality and endorse full civil rights for our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers. My hope is that we will do better than that; that we will focus on the future rather than the past.

Christ is not to be found buried in the bitterness and bigotry of the past. He is risen as he said. And he goes ahead of us. He is always calling us into the future. Our task is just to follow.