To understand one another, we at least have to attempt to model traits such as honesty, carefulness, rigor, and empathy. These are values I was taught in seminary and during my doctoral education. As an educator, I try to instill these intellectual virtues in my students. I value the free exchange of ideas, which is one of the reasons I went into academics to begin with. The academy does not always exemplify such virtuous discourse, but at its best it does, and when that happens, the outcome can be quite wonderful.
There are many enemies of the free exchange of ideas. Outright censorship is one, though we don’t often see this in the United States. Dishonesty is another. We see this quite often. We compromise our ability to grow spiritually and intellectually by dialoguing with one another when we are less than honest in our assertions. Yet another is a refusal of real engagement, opting instead for the political advantage that comes by shaming our opponents. This strategy can be extremely effective in the short term in helping us win points in the court of public opinion, but over the long haul sows the seeds of misunderstanding and heightened discord.
Three people I know have lately found themselves on the receiving end of some less-than-virtuous discourse. They wrote a letter to officials within the West Michigan Conference regarding a same-sex wedding performed by Ginny Mikita. Whether or not this letter directly resulted in any punitive action against Ms. Mikita, I don’t know. Regardless, Ms. Mikita was later informed that she was no longer a member of The United Methodist Church.
The question is, why is she no longer a member? Is it because she performed a same-sex wedding? To answer this question, we have to bear in mind that she was not ordained in the UMC. The kind of disciplinary action that might be taken toward a UM elder who broke his or her ordination vows is irrelevant to Ms. Mikita’s actions because she is not an ordained United Methodist clergyperson. It appears that Ms. Mikita’s removal from membership in the UMC had to do with the fact that she was ordained by another denomination, the Universal Life Church. When you unite with another denomination, you are by that very action forfeiting your official membership within the UMC:
If a pastor is informed that a member has without notice united with a church of another denomination, the pastor shall make diligent inquiry and, if the report is confirmed, shall enter “Withdrawn” after the persons’ name on the membership roll and shall report the same to the next charge conference (¶ 241 of the 2012 Book of Discipline).
To read the response that came out from RMN, you would think that Ms. Mikita was excommunicated from the UMC. In fact, the response uses that very term more than once. The response goes on to state,
Reconciling Ministries Network is aghast at the bureaucratic action undertaken not only by Rev. Bill Haggard, Bishop Deborah Kiesey, and the West Michigan Conference, but also by the pharisaic efforts of clergy from North Carolin, Texas and New Jersey whose commitment to the letter of the law has outstripped what used to be known as a “religion of the heart.” We wish this were simply a matter of poor leadership, a lack of nerve, or failed compassion on the part of a few, but what we know is that a denomination that enshrines discrimination and sin into its own policies and practices must bear the weight of this extraordinary injustice.
This kind of rhetoric has one goal: to shame. Its purpose is to shame the pastors and denominational leaders who were involved in this matter regarding Ms. Mikita. But the fact is, she withdrew herself from the denomination. The response from RMN may be rhetorically effective, especially to like-minded readers, but it is inaccurate. The spirit of the RMN response was picked up by blogger Jeremy Smith, who has developed a network of conspiracy theories regarding the attempted expulsion of progressives from the UMC. Apparently, the pastors who wrote the letter to the West Michigan Conference officials were attempting to expel one more progressive. The funny thing is, they didn’t have to. She expelled herself.
Misinformation, inflammatory rhetoric, the idolatry of “winning,” the subordination of truth to ideology, the politics of shame… These kinds of tactics ultimately serve no one. And yes, I know that this is not simply a progressive tactic. I have seen evangelical, conservative, and self-described centrists do this, too. I lament what our discourse has become. I don’t know what the future of our church is, but I pray that whatever it is, we can find better ways of talking to one another.