If you are up on what’s been going on in the United Methodist Church over the past generation, you know that we’re stuck in a big feedback loop over issues regarding sexuality. On the one side are those who take a position expressed in the current Book of Discipline. On the other side, are those who would like to change the position in the Discipline. As these two sides talk, the debate gets shriller and shriller. More fear is generated. Feelings are hurt, careers derailed, churches destroyed. And we keep ramping it up because we know we’re right and we have to stand for what’s right.
I have definite views on the matters at hand, but that’s not what I’m addressing now. instead, I want to consider the dynamics of the “conversation,” the feedback loop in which we find ourselves. I’d really like “my side” to win the debate, but I’m also convinced that we lose if the “other side” is crushed. As long as we continue to play into the feedback loop we continue to pursue (probably unintentionally) a lose-lose strategy disguised as “We win!”
Does that make me a “moderate,” a “centrist?” I hope not, since I don’t really care for those terms. In my experience of political debates, whether secular or ecclesial, just about everyone claims to be a moderate while they label the Other Side extremists. I find that a deceptive (and self-deceptive) game to play, so I don’t want to play it. But I’d also rather not play the feedback loop game either.
Scott Alexander (pseudonym) writes from neither a Methodist or Christian point of view. As he addresses the current warfare in the broader culture between what he calls the “Social Justice Warriors” and the “Anti Social Justice Warriors” he picks up on the same feedback loop we see in the United Methodist Church. His point is that though each side sees itself entirely in the right and its opponent entirely in the wrong and that this difference totally justifies their rhetoric and response, the actions of the two sides are symmetrical. Apart from the issue de jour, he notes that both sides are characterized by fear and insecurity. When we have large power differentials working from both sides, people (again, on both sides) often have reason to fear for their livelihoods (more often than their lives). Fear is not entirely misplaced.
What can happen, he asks, when we recognize that both sides have something to fear, something to lose? Can we gain some smidgen of sympathy for The Other Side? When we recognize that the strategies of attack and marginalization taken up by our side mirror those taken up by the other side, can we edge toward reining ourselves in (or, using Christian-speak), repenting? Even a little bit?
Yes, yes, I know that extremism in pursuit of justice/truth/holiness/inclusion can never be a bad thing. Well, actually, if my “extremism” we mean “the end justifies the means” then I don’t know that. In fact, I deny it. If we follow a Jesus who fought to the bitter end to coerce his society and its institutions to Do The Right Thing, then sure, maybe that kind of extremism is the way to go. But that’s not the Jesus I see in the New Testament. There I see a Jesus who confronted the evils of sin, death, and hell – and their various manifestations in the world – by suffering and dying. The poor fellow didn’t even defend himself!
Of course, we might say, Jesus (and the apostles in the succeeding age) had it easy. They had the advantage of clarity: it was them vs. the world. In our debate we see no clear lines (despite our rhetoric that treats The World, with its full evil connotations drawn from scripture, as monolithic, and unambiguously allied with The Other Guys) between Church and World. Sin and wrongness is in here (the church) and not just out there (in the world). Even saying this can get us steamed and back into the feedback loop.
So I’m going to try acting as if the end does not justify the means. Jesus cares about the ends. I think I’ve correctly grasped at least some of those ends he cares about (and that some other folks are clearly wrong). But Jesus also cares about the way I pursue those ends.
I’m going to go ahead and make comments now and then, arguing as I think is right and beneficial to the church (local and universal). But I’m going to try not playing the game that leads back into our currently destructive feedback loop. We’ll see what comes of it.