Mainliners, Be a Little Brutal and Divisive

Practically the first thing they teach you in a Methodist seminary—between “the bathrooms are over there” and “tell me about your faith journey—is: “Don’t mess with the Martha and Mary Society.” For even in the rarefied atmosphere of the academy, they know who really runs the church. She who holds the keys to the kitchen holds the keys to the kingdom, not whatever goof in a clerical collar they put out front.

So: if you want any kind of tenure in your congregation, you learn not to cross the grandmothers who are going to do the majority of the scut work to build social capital in your community. Do. Not. Mess. With. The. M & M. Society.

Ever.

The second law, like unto the first, is: “Don’t mess with the United Methodist Women.” For that august society, dedicated to spiritual development, works of charity, and peace and justice, largely overlaps with the Martha and Mary Society, but is also present across the entire denomination. And United Methodist Women—even the most proper of Southern dames—do not incline to clericalism. They know their own minds, thank you very much. Therefore, the wise pastor will respect the organization.

Thus it was that I approached with no little trepidation the question-and-answer portion of a recent teleconference the UMW set up to discuss its work in “children, youth, and family advocacy, racial justice, public policy, and global policy.” And that’s what they did, highlighting their recent work with Haiti and Cameroon, and looking forward to their Assembly, which they told us would be focused on immigration issues.

What I wanted to know, and had to ask rather rudely, was how their work was politically incisive. By that, I don’t mean in the sense of partisan politics, but rather how they saw themselves as articulating a message that made some difference in the public realm.

Questions like that aren’t entirely fair to ask of denominational bodies, which shy away from controversy. But the fact is, as I put it to the UMW leaders on the call, that Concerned Women for America garners a lot of attention in the media these days, all the way down at the other end of the political spectrum from the UMW. So what could they tell me to demonstrate why they were more deserving of the spotlight?

The leaders—Harriett Olson and Inelda González—gave pretty much the answers I expected. They pointed to the work of personal transformation among UMW members: González told a story about women affected by Hurricane Katrina who had prepared relief kits for overseas mission, only to receive them at home in their own hour of need. Olson pointed to the “encounters with the marginalized” that their members experience, the issue studies on Sudan, immigration and other subjects they have done, their longstanding mission to the UN and lobbying office in DC.

Let me say upfront that there’s nothing wrong with those answers. Had I been in their shoes, I probably would have given the same ones.

And let me be equally upfront in saying that I muffed my questions a bit. What I was trying to ask, and couldn’t quite articulate, was: what difference does all of this make? In a public square sharply divided along religious and political lines, how does what you do pose a meaningful alternative to the crapulent reality to which we have all accommodated ourselves?

We heard a little about that: Olson spoke of being concerned with the structural or systemic things that create “marginalization.” She also talked about the UMW’s unique perspective, which runs all the way from local chapters to international affairs.

All of which is fine, as far as it goes, and I’m not trying to pick on the UMW or its leaders. As a graduate of the Candler School of Theology, I know better than that.

It’s just that, well, I have this fond hope that the mainline denominations will someday find their voice and speak out, clearly, frankly, perhaps even a little brutally. Just once, I would like to hear somebody say, “You should listen to us because Glenn Beck is a damned idiot who wouldn’t know authentic faith from a turnip.” We’re all so nice and positive, all of us progressive Methodists and Presbyterians and Lutherans and UCCers, that I think we’ve lost sight of the divisiveness of the gospel, of how it forces upon us difficult, and ground-shaking, choices. Even the Mennonites have forgotten something of what sets them apart from the world.

We need not manufacture controversy or generate conflict for the sake of conflict. We certainly don’t need to get out there and out-sectarian the Religious Right, if such a thing were even possible. But there’s a whole world out there waiting for somebody, anybody, to tell them the truth: that God is not static and unchanging, not on the side of the rich and the powerful, but free and for the poor and dispossessed, and those who forget or ignore that reality do so to their peril.

If we mainline liberals can’t say that loudly and clearly, then we’re about as much use to people as salt that has lost its flavor. Having met more than a few salty souls dressed up as Methodist grandmothers, among other places, I’d have to say that’s a damn shame.

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