One of the more interesting aspects of General Conference involves the act of just getting into the Tampa Convention Center. Outside are a myriad of folks dressed variously in t-shirts and with scarves that represent a variety of causes. There are the pro-Life folks with orange “Do No Harm” shirts, those wearing rainbow stoles advocating for full inclusion of LGBT people, the conservative folks with their papers. Everyone wants to put something in your hand–a flier, a handout, a sticker, a button. It kind of makes you feel like a rock star running through paparazzi for the moment you walk through the gauntlet because everybody wants your attention. Of course, rock stars would have people to carry around all the junk they get handed.
Most conversations here at General Conference have an angle. Everyone’s got a cause and, in many ways, it’s a bit of a microcosm of the wider political divide in the country. It’s not a little ironic, for example, that the Democratic convention will be here later this summer where there will undoubtedly be even more people handing out stuff and protesting across the street (here, there’s a tent set up across the street by a group that advocates for LGBT inclusion). Then, I would imagine, that space will be taken up by some conservative caucus group.
We are constantly hearing the voice of the extremes here–the religious equivalent of Fox News or MSNBC. I’m reminded of Rabbi Edwin Friedman’s famous dictum about family and organizational systems when he says that (and I’m paraphrasing) a lack of clear vision and differentiated leadership always gives strength to the extremists. Without a clear and cohesive vision, countries, denominations and families will all be driven by those with the loudest voices and the most anxious approach to life.
The way things are done here at General Conference (like the US Government system after which our polity is modeled) always means that someone is going to win and someone is going to lose. The rhetoric is peppered with a lot of we-they statements, images of battle, and the woundedness of those who lose. Every issue has winners and losers and while we vow to stay together afterward you always know the fight will be rejoined again at the next committee meeting, conference, or caucus.
Not posing a solution here, but I wonder if there’s a better way to do all of this. Robert’s Rules of Order make meetings orderly, but do they enable real dialogue? Speeches for and against aren’t the same as having a cup of coffee together. The Conference has attempted to have “holy conversations” around some of these issues, but all the delegates complained that the time for them was too short–have to get back to the meeting and the legislation, after all. We apparently always need a referee to help us decide things, so we’re left to communicating ideas through fliers and t-shirts and scarves that mark us as belonging to one side or another. Walking the gauntlet becomes a substitute for walking the long road together.
This week has been all about legislative committees but, beginning Monday, we’ll be dealing with a lot of major issues on the plenary floor where there will certainly be more at stake, more emotion, more passion, more of a desire to win. The sentiment around here is that it’s going to be pretty intense but hopeful that it won’t be ugly. The gauntlet line will get longer, no doubt, and the protests more vigorous.
Before I headed out from the hotel this morning I was watching the Today show, which would be interviewing Rodney King on this day before the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots sparked by his King’s brutal beating by police officers and by their subsequent acquittal. I was reminded of King’s word to the city as the riots raged: “Can’t we all just get along?”
That’s a fair question whether you’re in the midst of a riot or a religious meeting. We are called to be peacemakers and not political hacks.
At Tri-Lakes UMC, we have talked a lot about the fact that while our culture wants to fall somewhere along a continuum between conservative and liberal, Jesus is really nowhere on that grid. He’s calling us to a completely different way of being.
It’s a way of following instead of fighting. It’s the way of grace instead of the way of the gauntlet.