Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Noisy Gongs and Clanging Cymbals: Labels and Pigeonholing

Between attending national/international United Methodist events, and reading what goes on in and around United Methodist circles, I see an increasingly disturbing trend amongst the people called United Methodists: we are a people of labels. In fact, I would daresay that we are a people who are desperate to label others. We seem to have to know where someone else stands on an issue so that we can know if they are like us, or they are like... the other. 

We Americans get it honestly. We see it modeled every day with the way our politicians and news media act. While every Christian denomination certainly has its version of church politics and caucusing, we United Methodists seems to do it better (or, more accurately, worse) than the rest. I am more than thankful for the diversity of our denomination, but I lament the horrible blood feuding that takes place among people who call themselves Christian. I have to be honest: I've found that Methodists and Calvinists often get along better than United Methodists and United Methodists.

We seem to be desperate to label each other. Desperate. As if all else depended on it. And when someone uses words that were once definitive for Christians and, more specifically Methodists, they are now "code" for whatever the labeler needs them to say - words that have lost their original meaning, bastardized into dirty words depending on which side of the ideological fence one sees the "other." 

The problem is, the labels we stick on people are rarely fair, much less accurate. I've always thought I tended to be around the middle/via media - which is why I continued along a Wesleyan/Anglican path. Theologians like N.T. Wright and younger UM's like Jason Vickers and Andrew Thompson speak to me. However, I've been told by some that this makes me a conservative... or a progressive (confused yet?). Yet others have told me that my personal stance on capital punishment makes me a progressive. My beliefs on abortion get me labeled a conservative. Still others have told me that my sacramental bent makes me a progressive... or a conservative... or a Catholic (my sacramental beliefs pretty much align with our official UM statements, by the way). And my recent article on sexuality got me labeled a conservative by those who didn't like my use of the words "traditional ethic" and a progressive by those who didn't like my plea for round table discussions on sexuality (which I believe we desperately need on other matters as well). Now, I do find some comfort in knowing that John Wesley endured some labeling as well: bible moth, bible bigot, a "Holy Club" member, sacramentalist, and most scandalous: Methodist. The last one stuck.

Labeling others becomes convenient (and expedient) because it spares us the harder work of initiating and fostering relationships. One fear of making relationships is that we're afraid of how we will be labeled if we are seen, or even perceived, of being with the "other." Guilt by association. Maybe it's because we know what happened to Jesus when he met the woman at the well, or went out to the lepers, or fellowshipped with people. "He is a drunkard and a glutton. I bet he cavorts with tax collectors and is a womanizer, too." More labels. I'm convinced our need to label is based on fear.

If we ever hope to be a truly United Methodist Church - beyond the "united" simply coming from our 1968 EUB/Methodist merger - we are going to have to go beyond labels and ideologies to taking covenant seriously where we intentionally seek out relationships instead of seeking out differences. When we attempt to pigeonhole others, we are practicing our own private bigotry. Will Durant said it best: To speak ill of others is a dishonest way of praising ourselves. 

I posted an article on church bullying yesterday on my Facebook face, and one person commented, "There are no politics dirtier than church politics." I fear she's right. We as the Church ought to do conflict and deal with our differences better than the rest of society. But right now, we are mirroring American politics. In days past, Republican and Democrat lawmakers fought on the congressional floor, then in the evening went to a bar or restaurant together and worked something out. Now, doing such and getting a picture snapped an put on Twitter would mean certain political death of such politicians. It seems we church folks feel the same way: don't get caught dead with "the other."

If we want war, we already have it. But if we want to be people of peace who truly embrace Jesus - we HAVE to sit with each other. Talk. Build relationships. Pray. Desire to have a heart that is at peace rather than at war. Listen. Quit labeling. Quit looking for "code" words. Long before we had any books on conflict resolution, we had Jesus modeling all of these things. 

In my opinion, the future of the United Methodist Church has very little to do with our theology or doctrinal stances, how we feel about sexuality, or our differing hermeneutics on scripture - for these arguments have been present long before any of us were even born and even at the beginning of Methodists (ever read about Wesley and Whitefield?). The future of the UMC will be dependent on our willingness to build relationships and establish trust AMIDST our differences. Until we are willing to get to that root cause, we are spinning our wheels. I suspect far more people are put off by the Church by our infighting instead of any of our beliefs. I mean, let's face it: why would anyone want to join a blood feud?

Do we really want to be noisy gongs and clashing cymbals?



Unknown said...

Amen and amen.

Unknown said...

Amen and amen.

David R. Reed said...

Dan Schaffer suggests, "Are we not shaped as Christians through a series of personal encounters with Christ, usually in quiet places, through the practice of active listening?"

Dan's then asks, "Is there a venue where we can help others encounter Christ and help them move toward becoming Christians?"

That venue would certainly not be filled with "Noisy Gongs and Clanging Cymbals."

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, Sky. A good and timely word. I too have noticed how many people have a vested interest in labeling via media folks either liberal or conservative. Sad.

JM Smith said...

I resonate a lot with this. My question is, at what point do we finish dialogue and render judgment on an issue? I believe many in Corinth would have liked Paul to engage in a roundtable regarding sexual ethics and consenting adults in their fellowship. But his words on the matter are sharp and call for a cutting off of Covenant fellowship at times (i.e. the Corinthian church member who was engaging in a sexually immoral relationship and the church's celebration, or at the very least toleration, of it as a sign of their "spirituality").

So how does this post apply in situations like that, and is that what we're facing as a denomination after four decades of dialogue?

Allan R. Bevere said...


Good stuff here.

My sense of things is that for too many people they simply cannot help themselves when it comes to labeling because it's the only way they can make sense of the world around them.

The world must fall along the liberal/conservative continuum for these folks; for those of us who refuse to see life along that continuum, we make about as much sense to these people as saying 2+2=5.

As Stanley Hauerwas says, the modern liberal/conservative options are sterile and uninteresting. Unfortunately, there are too many who cannot figure this out.

Unknown said...