Schism begets schism.
When I was in policy debate in high school, an opposing team once argued that we should not be talking about a potentially dangerous situation, because the more we talked about it, the more likely it was to occur. After hearing their contention, I was incensed. The argument was so generic it could be used against almost any case. I also wondered how true it was. Can talk make a situation more likely to happen?
While there are some potentially dangerous situations that are not changed by the frequency of conversation (venomous snakes for example), some dangerous situations arise because they become part of our discourse. Some problems will never develop unless they are named and made real by words. In a world of almost infinite possibilities, some possibilities need the catalyst of our words for them to ever be likely. Words can take a possibility that was on the periphery and make it the focus. Our words can do this several ways.
First, we find power in naming problems. Once named, we can then frame the problem. With a problem properly named and framed, a person can offer a solution. If you set the parameters for debate and define the issues, then it is much easier to offer a solution. When you offer your preferred solution with your preferred outcome, you have power. Without the naming and the framing, people might not have worried about it. Even if they were concerned, your preferred solution seems better, because of how you named and framed the problem.
Second, naming a problem often hides other problems. Some say that the problem in the United Methodist Church is that United Methodists are violating the Book of Discipline. These violations are causing stress and harm in the life of the church. In naming and defining the problem this way, we are ignoring other problems that I would argue are deeper. Problems such as an absence of love, too little compassion, diminished empathy, a desire for power, self-righteousness, and/or a lack of self-awareness. It is easy to name superficial problems, it is harder to deal with the problems we find hidden in our hearts.
Third, the more we talk about the problem, the more we set expectations about the problem. If we talk about our problem using the language of schism, the harder it is to see a different end result. When we use the language of winning and losing around the problem, it is hard to imagine a future where there are no winners and losers. Language has power. Using the language of “problems” gives us a different mindset than if we are using the language of dancing.
Language and words define our reality. As we define our reality, our actions follow suit. Perhaps our biggest issue as a church is the failure of imagination. I wonder what would be different if the church developed and used a different set of words when talking about our ministry together. What would church life be like if our language was built on ideas like faith, hope, love, beauty, truth, humility, justice, and creativity? Instead, we use words rooted in war, conflict, arrogance, and power.
With our failures to imagine a different way, some want the church as it exists now to die. They think it is beyond redeeming. I would contend though that if we let schism prevail, we may not actually be solving our real difficulties. If our problems are rooted deep in our hearts, then breaking up the church will not resolve them. Those problems will still be there and they will still cause us pain.
Daring to believe that Love can change the world
One of my favorite songs is Aaron Niequist’s “Love Can Change the World.” In the song, Aaron raises the question, “Oh do we still believe that Love-Love can change the world?” It is a good question for United Methodists to wrestle with. Do we believe that love can change the world?
Jesus does not spend a lot of time talking about schism in the Gospels. He does spend a lot of time talking about love. Love God. Love your neighbor. Let the world know you are his disciples by your love. Love your enemy. Love, in some form or another, should propel us to act in the world.
Most United Methodists know Jesus’ teachings on love. Sunday school teachers teach the children to love. Preachers preach on love. Our hymns celebrate God’s love and invite us to love one another. An outside observer might think we are a bit pollyannaish in the ways we focus on love.
Love though is not pollyannaish. Loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind can be difficult. Loving our neighbor proves easier to say than do. Letting the world know we are followers of Jesus by our love proves ever more daunting.
If we give up on the call to love though, what does that say about Jesus? Does Jesus’ teachings and ministry matter if we cannot practice the most important invitation – to love? When we are advocating schism, setting the stage for a church split, disparaging those we disagree with in the church, naming and defining problems in ways that lead disunity, what does that say about Jesus? Can we claim to be disciples and show so little love?
Schism does not solve our problems related to love. It just entrenches them. If we cannot act in love now when things are terribly difficult, how are we going to grow in our capacity for love? By abandoning the chance to act in love when it is hardest? Setting a precedent that when things are difficult, it is better to give up?
If the Bible is true, then the mandate to love has to be our highest aspiration. The only way for the world to know if the Bible is true is by our actions. How “true the Bible is” depends on how seriously we take it. The truth of the Bible is most evident in our words, our actions, our silences, and our pauses. When it is hard to love that is when love is most needed. The light of Christ shines most brightly in the darkest moments. If we are to be the light of the world then love is what gives our lives illumination.
Jesus often pointed out to the good religious folk of his day that they were missing God’s highest call to love. They got so caught up in their understanding of God that they could not see God incarnate in their midst. When Jesus challenged them to love and expressed love to the least and the lost, they attacked Jesus. We are not better if love is not our driving motivation.
United Methodists should be able to agree on the importance of love. It is at the heart of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection. The church needs more actions of love and less talk of schism. United Methodists should be to agree that the world needs Jesus, but Jesus will only be known by our love.