If last week’s United Methodist General Conference taught us anything, it’s that there is no victory but total victory.
That, at least, is something conservatives and liberals were able to agree on, and no wonder why. For those who view full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons as a matter of civil rights, anything short of universal acceptance is unjust. For those who view the inclusion of any such person as a collective sin, anything short of universal exclusion is a rejection of holiness.
I really don’t know how anyone deals with such absolutism.
Don’t get me wrong. I have strong feelings about full inclusion and have for many years. The strange thing, however, is that my views have flipped. As a young man raised in the South, I thought in the same traditional way that virtually everyone around me did. Then I made the mistake of taking the Bible more seriously. When I did, realized over time that my assumptions were based on using scripture to affirm my prejudices, rather than on letting scripture guide and shape what I believed. It took awhile for me to be comfortable with the shift, and still longer to speak it aloud. Once I did, however, I’ve held that conviction strongly.
What has been consistent over both phases in my adult life, however, is a certain pragmatism that makes me a poor match for zealots. My default setting is to find workable solutions even amid deep disagreements.
Unfortunately, in church as well as contemporary politics, such pragmatism is in short supply. Zealotry was on clear display in St. Louis. For many–especially the traditionalists–there could be no victory but total victory. Compromise was seen not as a sign of altruism, but of weakness. Besides, as one former colleague put it to me at a previous GC, “Why would you compromise when you know you have the votes?”
The fallout from GC2019 has continued in largely the same spirit. My conservative friends have taken some muted victory laps. They congratulate themselves and dismiss pain from the other side as nothing more than their opponents being sore losers. My progressive friends have expressed anger and outrage, variously advocating for fight with or flight from the UMC.
I can understand both sets of emotions. Twenty years ago I would have felt the former. Today, I feel the latter. But neither response moves us forward. To do that, we need a virtue that we’ve largely abandoned, both as a church and as a nation.
I’m not suggesting that everyone is okay or that we simply bless every viewpoint, no matter how misleading or illogical. Nor am I suggesting that anyone who throws a conniption fit about not getting his way should be allowed to hijack the better judgment of an organization.
But I am suggesting that the no-victory-but-total-victory mindset is toxic and unnecessary. It’s hubris to think that we are the defenders of God’s holiness, and equally so to think that we can right every wrong in the span of a few decades. It’s exhausting to approach every disagreement as a high-stakes battle. We’ve grown too used to it, though, to realize the toll it takes on us.
A give-and-take solution may not satisfy anyone, but it keeps the carnage to a minimum. Plus, real compromise is perhaps the highest form of respect. Days of prayer and calls for civil dialogue may be well and good, but they only pile on words. Actual compromise, on the other hand, says to supporters and opponents alike that we value connection with people above purity of ideals.
Perhaps it’s too late for renewed generosity to make a difference for the UMC. No matter. God has also started over with his children more than once, and God will almost certainly do so again. If we want to be a part of that reconciling work–both for the once and future church, and for our nation–we have to lay aside our dreams of conquest. We have to discover a mutual generosity–courageous, unafraid of loss, deeply committed to one another as children of God.