Recently, I was at a gathering of United Methodist clergy. After accomplishing our primary goal, a pastor wanted to raise a new topic for discussion. This pastor was all worked up about the possibility that the Boy Scouts might give individual troops the ability decide about whether to permit homosexual scouts and scout leaders. I got the impression that the pastor wanted all of us to say we were not going to allow scout troops with homosexual leaders in our church.
Another pastor brought up the concern about pedophilia and homosexuality. Normally, I try to stay out of conversations where I can see no win. If I cannot see a positive outcome for the conversation, I see little reason to add to the negative energy. Yet, as all sorts of issues were being fused into one, I felt I needed to say something, even if it seemed obvious. From my perspective there were several issues at play: 1) the United Methodist’s church’s postion on homosexuality, 2) the possible change in the Scout policy, 3) the relationship between pedophilia and homosexuality, and 4) how will our churches react to a change in policy.
I made the point that we did not need to frame these issues in antagonistic ways. I contended that heterosexuals can be pedophiles and that there is no link between one’s sexual orientation and pedophilia. From my perspective the church’s position on homosexuality was not really an issue in terms of the Boy Scouts. People can use the church facility without agreeing with the church’s position on everything. The church can allow people to use the facility without agreeing with everything the person or group believes in. We are not going to stop a Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, or Buddhist from leading a Scout troop. Ultimately, each church will have to decide how to respond if the Scouts change their policy.
The conversation continued to go nowhere. Finally, another pastor told a joke, which I think was less offensive then the ones they started the meeting with, and we started to leave. I was flushed and wound up. These conversations always upset. Certain people seem to have a mission in this world to upset people, whether they really need to be or not. Many of our problems are because people frame things in ways that make them problematic and use the ensuing controversy to consolidate power.
I started to leave, but ended up talking to the pastor who was leading the gathering. The pastor was probably making sure I was not going to leave the meeting and create problems for him. Just as we finished talking, the pastor who started the whole conversation came up to me and wanted to talk. He wanted to know “why can’t we talk about these issues?”
Our conversation started in the hallway of a church facility, but as preschool children filed past us, and their adult leaders gave us dirty looks, we moved our conversation out to the parking lot. We talked in the cold for a long while. He would bring up a point, I would bring up a counter point. I was not trying to take any side, but trying to show why an issue like homosexuality is complicated.
My main contention was that reading the Bible is difficult. It was written thousands of years ago. In languages that are very different than English. Our scriptures were “God-breathed” into particular times and places. They were written in different cultures, with different ideas, and different ways of viewing the world. None of us can fully understand or appreciate any verse given all of this. Good God fearing people can disagree on how best to understand the scripture. We only see dimly now. None of us fully understand God.
His main contention was that if you have the “Spirit of truth” in you, you’ll read the Bible the right way. He clearly thought he had the “Spirit of truth” and was reading God’s word the right way. I suggested that perhaps people who disagree with him, might think that they have the “Spirit of truth” too. On this issue, he really could not imagine that.
We both had other contentions. Our conversation just kept going in circles. At some point I guess he realized he was not going to to convince me his perspective was the only valid one. He ended the conversation by again asking “why can’t we talk about these issues?” I think he meant as pastors in the local church.
I thought that it should have seemed self-evident. We cannot talk, because you do not want to talk. Conversation is a two way street. It requires give and take. You need to listen as well as talk. To listen to someone, you have to believe they have something to say worth hearing.
One reason we struggle to talk in the church is arrogance. From my limited perspective, the other pastor was being incredibly arrogant. He felt he had the “Spirit of truth” on his side, and his opponents did not. It seemed liked his mission was to show others the error of their ways. He did not want a conversation, he wanted to win people to his side.
This arrogance then extends to how he frames the issue. He frames the issue in the most antagonistic way. The pastor brings it up when no one else is sweating over it. When everyone else seems uncomfortable, he presses on. His issues are more important than any other considerations, like healthy group dynamics for example.
I wish we could as a church and as a society have fruitful conversations. It would be wonderful if we all practiced healthy ways of communicating and problem solving. If we all were humble enough to admit we could be wrong, generous enough to believe others might have a valid perspective, and loving enough to look past our differences, we might be able to talk about these issues. I pray one day we will be less worried about power and winning, and more concerned about being witnesses to God’s love. Until that day though, we will have to pray that the Spirit might empower us to live into the truth of God that is most important.