“But the economist is by no means alone in having a blindspot, a ‘trained incapacity’ (as Veblen called it) for perceiving the usefulness of one of our two mechanisms [exit]. In fact, in the political realm exit has fared much worse than has voice in the realm of economics. Rather than as merely ineffective or ‘cumbrous,’ exit has often been branded as criminal, for it has been labeled desertion, defection, and treason.”
In the economic/business realm, exit is very easy and of relatively low cost. If you don’t like a particular business, just “exit” that business and go to a competitor (assuming you’re not dealing with a monopoly). Because exit is so easy in this context, some businesses don’t get the feedback (voice) they need to improve.
The situation is the other way around in the political realm. When it comes to our citizenship, especially at the top level of the nation state, exit is very difficult, if it’s even possible. Moving away from one’s home country can, as Hirschman notes, be seen as more than just a personal decision to emigrate. It’s “desertion, defection, [or] treason.”
What about in the church? Unlike our nation state, exit is very easy when it comes to the church in America. In fact, exit is so easy, our relationship to church seems much more like our relationship to a business. Religion is a commodity in a marketplace. If we’re not happy with the services offered by our current provider, we just go to the next one down the street or across town.
If church is a business, an entity that exists to offer services within a religious marketplace, then exit is a sign that the church needs to do a better job serving its members. We need to “meet the felt needs” of people, i.e., offer them the quality and quantity of religious commodities they demand. After all, “the customer is always right.” Burger King leads the way.
But what if church isn’t a business? Contrary to the expectations of some, churches are not there to serve their members. Members are tied to each other through fundamental commitments and covenants. When practicing exit in the face of a declining or deteriorating church, the break in relationship is more like “desertion, defection, [or] treason” – or even divorce. We even have a religious word for this, used when it is a group that is practicing exit together: “Schism.”
Churches are political entities, unlike businesses. We commit to each other when we become members. Members of a church aren’t simply interchangeable like customers of a business. We matter to each other because our relationships are rooted in love. This love bay be inchoate or immature, but it is still love. Breaking the bond of membership through exit hurts. Exit is also materially costly, since the current United Methodist Book of Discipline has congregations holding all property in trust for the denomination. Those who exit leave with nothing to show for years – sometimes generations – of work and sacrifice.
When someone exits, we have some ready-made names to throw their way to assuage our pain: Heretic! Congregationalist! Bigot? Fundamentalist! Calvinist! Baptist! Is it possible to stay in love even when people exit? Can we embrace the pain rather than trying to expel it?
The call for provisions to allow for “gracious exit” may point this direction. Those who seek to add this option to the United Methodist constitution may be wishing to maintain love in the face of the pain of exit. From what I’ve seen, it’s usually the traditionalists who talk about creating this option. On the front side, it looks like this is showing grace and love to those they disagree with, those who in the face of maintaining the traditionalist policies with regard to sexuality may see the current policy as evil. On the other hand, it may be that with the cultural juggernaut of revisionist sexual ethics in America, traditionalists may be trying to open space for their own exit.
Both of the major sides in the current United Methodist conflict think they can win. The traditionalists think they can win because they see the bulk of world Methodism (and the growing edge) taking a traditionalist point of view. The revisionists think they can win if they only outlast the traditionalists, since they are “on the right side of history.” Both sides keep up the voice option. But how long till voice becomes too tiring or painful, and exit becomes the favored option, even if costly?