A Conversation in the Midst of Conflict

As many of you know, my denomination, the United Methodist Church, recently held a special General Conference to try to find a way to enable its far-flung membership in the North Atlantic, Africa, and the Philippines to live in the same church connection in spite of their deep differences over the full inclusion of people regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation. You may also know that the Conference failed in that effort, tightening its restrictions and setting up the conditions for major splintering of an organizational form last re-shaped in 1968.

As a prelude to that Conference, my own congregation fostered a month of conversations at round tables using a circle conversation format to help people “listen with love” across differences about these sensitive issues. No matter what happened at the General Conference we wanted to be prepared to live and work together as a church seeking full inclusion of people. As part of that program I spent two evenings in a public conversation with my dear friend Wilson Strickhausen exploring these issues from very different vantage points rooted in our very different biographies. While we have been in this kind of conversation for some years, we hoped that it might offer people a model for deepening mutual understanding among our fellow Methodists.

The 30 minute conversations were recorded and are available to view on YouTube. The first conversation focused on how our very different backgrounds have shaped the way we approach these matters. In the second conversation we took up questions about Biblical teachings submitted to us by the some 200 people participating in this series. (Click on the highlighted segments in this paragraph to see them.)

It is too early to discern the outcomes of this traumatic General Conference, in which people who had prayed and worshipped together ended up deeply hurting one another, subjecting Christ’s Body once again to the trauma of our alienations. Some major structural changes will probably result in order to enable people nurtured in the Methodist tradition to work on common projects and respect very different approaches to the status and role of sexual minorities in the church and society.

Two things have struck me in these recent debates. First has to do with the role of circle conversation in dealing with social conflict. Over the past 25 years circle conversations have become for me a kind of sacrament in which the spirit of reconciliation can find a purchase in our daily relationships. It is a practice of mutual respect, affirmation of equality, articulation of deep understandings and hopes — the indispensable ground for just and lasting covenants of restoration. That is, it is a good in itself, grounded in our character as human beings and in God’s character as the source of all creation and renewal.

That being said, those of us supporting circle conversations also hope that it can solve our conflicts in a more direct manner. By weaving it into institutional life we hope that it can immediately and tangibly resolve deep disputes. Clearly, this did not happen for the Methodists in General Conference. As powerful as the experience of conversation in circle may be, it too can be perverted or rejected in the cauldron of fears, ideological certainty, cultural commitments, and zero-sum democratic process that characterize our institutional life.

We can respond to this fact in part by rehearsing how we move from conversation to argument. The capacity to argue, to persuade through appeal to commonly held facts and beliefs, is essential to the political ideal of governance through councils, congresses, and conventions. Too many of us have lost the capacity to argue because we have retreated to claims based on our personal feelings, on special beliefs, or the appeal to biologically-rooted identities. We can at least start there. How to repair and reshape our decision-making processes to enable argument to proceed is yet an additional step.

The second thing I have been thinking about is a theological matter affecting arguments over sexuality, faith, and the church. In our differences and often confused conversation about sexuality and faith we are confronting what theologians call the relationship of “nature” and “grace.” What is “natural” for human beings? Is there a single natural form for sexual relationship? Are there numerous natural forms that arise from a deeper natural impulse for enduring union with another? We confront here various understandings of the “natural,” whether from the standpoint of Genesis, of St. Paul’s teachings, or contemporary science.

We then have to ask whether our understanding of human nature defines the shape of God’s “grace.” Is our nature the container of God’s grace or does God’s grace overflow and redefine our understanding of our nature? St. Thomas argued that God’s grace “perfects” or completes our nature. What does this mean with regard to our sexual relationships?

Moreover, what does “grace” mean? Is it simply the grace of a judge that forgoes punishment? This is the classic forensic notion permeating so much of Christianity. Or is grace the continual operation of God’s creativity in bringing the whole creation to some kind of unimaginable fruition?

The movement of Christian renewal inaugurated by the Wesleys in the 18th century did not tarry long with reflections over our nature, flawed and incomplete as it is. They emphasized the overwhelming grace of an accepting God who is seeking to perfect our lives toward a promised new creation. It seems to me, in the midst of this trauma, conflict, and confusion, it’s a claim worth lifting up and celebrating. Whatever are sexual natures may be, I want to keep on celebrating that grace.


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Sexuality and Ecclesiology

The United Methodist Church will gather bishops, clergy, and lay delegates from around the world in St. Louis this week to decide how to adjust its church structure to accommodate deep differences among its members about non-heterosexual identities and relationships. At the same time, the Pope has expelled Cardinal Theodore McCarrick from the priesthood  for his decades-long sexual predations and called for a meeting of church leaders to set a future course for the Church to deal with clergy sexual abuse. Concurrently, Southern Baptist Churches are struggling with an extensive expose of sexual abuse in many of the independent congregations constituting the Southern Baptist Convention. The tangle of sexual crime and ecclesiastical order seems unending, mirroring analogous perversion and destructiveness in politics, sports, business and beyond. In the midst of the media torrent of sensational tawdriness many of us are struggling to make some sense of this relentless scandal. In the Methodist case, the mere fact of vast differences in sexual beliefs and practices is threatening the continued existence of the United Methodist Church as it has existed since the mid-twentieth century. The same has been true of Episcopal, Presbyterian, Congregational and other denominations in recent years.

As I continue with writing and re-writing my memoir about my own intellectual journey, I see how the relation between sexuality and ecclesiology has been one of the threads running through my professional work since the beginning. My interest in ecclesiology first surfaced in my senior honors thesis at Wesleyan University on some leaders in the American Baptist Churches. In my graduate work I became fascinated with the body metaphor for social and ecclesial organization, leading to a dissertation on “body thinking.” Why do we transfer the thoughts and emotions connected to our own bodies onto much larger social relationships, endowing them with bodily metaphors of incorporation, mind, and personality? How can we reconcile this strong connection of sexuality and organizational vitality with our longing for a civil republic based on reason and law?

First of all, it becomes clear that large organizations and nation states require deep commitment, indeed, self-sacrificing commitment, in order to function and survive. The mutual self-giving known in marriage, where, as Genesis states, a man and a woman become “one flesh,” becomes extended to a sense of identification between our individual bodies and the greater “body” of the organization, including the nation. As in the marriage described by St. Paul in I Corinthians 7, we give to the other body authority over our own. We have to be socialized in some way into believing that the survival of our own body depends on the survival of the larger body of which we are a part. The love of our own sexual pleasure and procreative power is one of the most powerful sources for this social commitment.

In a world that often claims to be constructed out of beliefs, agreements, contracts, covenants, and constitutions, we often come to think that the sworn oath contains enough emotional power to knit our own welfare to that of the larger organization. Our world of lawful order is built on a belief that we are a “nation of laws rather than of men (or persons).” In the United States, as in some other countries, this belief in an order of law is being tested mightily in the face of attempts by “strong men” to rule the body politic by sexually powerful decrees (or tweets) of shame and attraction. In the church we have often recognized that the sexual charisma of the leader, whether through the image of virgin self-control or open personal charisma, is a powerful source of personal motivation that can easily lead to corruption of the ecclesial order and its professed message.

In short, sexual bonds and desires have always been one of the most powerful forces for creating social orders larger than the household of conjugal union. Figuring out how to channel and constrain this powerful force in the service of a wider public based in reason and law has always been essential to an enduring public philosophy. The work is never done.

Second, sexual bonds create very powerful paradigms of social order. These sexual bonds are formed in our earliest intimate relationships of the family. Most of the large-scale organizations of earlier times were magnifications of the father-child relationship into patterns of boss-worker, lord-vassal, king-subject, and priest-parishioner. Deep sexual longings, what Freud called libidinal drives, are the engine of this pyramidal paradigm of power and authority. It was this paradigm that was attacked by the early English republicans and the founders of the American republic. (See my earlier blog on “Patriarchs, Republics and our Present Travail.”) It is this paradigm that has been overlaid rather than erased by the civil and bureaucratic orders established in the last two centuries in Europe and America. Its recrudescence in scandal and personal destructiveness forces us to remember not only how precarious this civil order is, but how easily it can be subverted by the manipulation of these primordial sexual desires.

Thus, I see the attack on marriage between Gay and Lesbian persons not as attacks on the behavior of specific persons but as efforts to defend the hierarchical paradigm generated by the man-woman household of our human history.  The father-child model of divine and ecclesial order is challenged by the revelation of the destructiveness of the sexual forms through which it drew its power. Exposing the destructiveness of sexual relationships within this male-dominated paradigm can move churches to structures of greater mutual accountability and integrity within the publics of the church.

In short, what these conflicts are saying to me today is that we can never lose sight of the connection of sexuality to our ecclesiology, our spirituality, our politics, and our economic life. Moreover, we must continually struggle to form and reform these sexual drives around relationships of equality and mutual dignity. At the core of the reshaping of our public order of civility is our reframing of marriage as the companionship of sexual beings longing to give and receive each other in love.

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In the small town where I live it is not unusual to hear people say in parting “I will pray for you.” If not “you,” then it might be your family member, friend, or someone suffering in the neighborhood. I heard it in the bank the other day as we waited for our long-time front desk friend to finish with another customer. In a small town relationships overlap, criss-cross and go beyond the formal lines. They lead us to a periphery of commitment we might not otherwise entertain. Words like this expand our world.

It made me think how limited our vocabulary is to give expression to such sentiments. I have Quaker friends who use the phrase, “I will hold you in the light.” I like it, but aren’t there many more? From that wondering emerged this musing, complete with the famous line from Julian of Norwich, “All will be well.” Maybe you could add your own.


“I will pray for you.”

All will be well.


I will blow God’s breath across your waters,

Wash God’s ocean on your shores,

Draw the water of God’s well to wet your lips.

I will shine God’s light within the darkness all around you,

Call your name out in the night,

Hold your pulse within my heart,

Beat your drum in empty streets.

I will seat you in the midst of Easter lilies,

I will plant you in the flood’s black loam,

I will water your roots with care.


I will pray for you.

Well will be your all.

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Patriarchy, Republics, and our Present Travail

As I, like you, struggle with the constant torrent of chatter, lies, and consternation that fills our life these days, the words of Machiavelli (yes, Machiavelli!) rise out of the slumbers of my lifetime of reflection on public life: “To insure a long existence to religious sects or republics, it is necessary frequently to bring them back to their original principles.” Hannah Arendt, whose influence courses through my thought and work, cites this passage from his Discourses, Book 3, somewhere in her On Revolution, as she unpacks the meaning of the American Revolution and the founders’ subsequent creation of a constitution for a Novus Ordo Saeclorum — a new order for the ages.

 We are, it seems to me, once again at one of those points where attacks on our Constitutional order and the cultural foundations for our republic drive us back to our first principles in order to find a way ahead. I am not sure what you might see as the Original  Principles of our American constitutional order, but for many years I have gone back before the events of our founding to the principles forged in the controversies of the civil war in England in the seventeenth century. In particular, I return to John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government (1690), which he wrote to refute the claims on behalf of patriarchal monarchy set forth by Robert Filmer in the 1630s and published posthumously in 1680 as Patriarcha, or the Natural Power of Kings.

In Locke’s dispute with Filmer we find both the origins of much of our political thought but also its unfinished business. Filmer argued that rule by one man as the source of law, justice, and government is grounded in the unitary dominion granted to Adam in the creation. So much for elections, checks and balances, and an independent judiciary! He appealed not only to Scripture but to the creation of the natural order itself for his support of absolute monarchy, just as earlier in the century, James I of England had argued for the divine right of kings. Locke attacked both his scriptural claims and his appeals to “nature” and set out the lineaments of a theory of republican government based in the common agreement of the citizens. The republican order we know arose in a struggle against the claims of patriarchy and monarchy.

However, Locke did not dispute that men legitimately ruled in the home over women, children, and domestic slaves. He only argued, against Filmer and the monarchists, that this household model should not be a model for government. In a republic, men ought not to be ruled like children in a household but according to mutual covenants created among equals. The liberation of the enslaved and of women to participate in public life came only after enormous struggle and bloodshed in the next two centuries. Our present calamitous controversy recalls us both to the unfinished work of the Constitutional founders as well as the defense of the work they accomplished, in spite of its imperfection.

The model of patriarchal monarchy, in which even the law flows from the will of the monarch was, for Filmer, intrinsic to the God of Christians and Jews and to the creation flowing from this God. It is this image of a despotic patriarchal monarch that has been rehearsed in most Christian worship in this country to this day. Thus, many Christians in America support President Trump not in spite of his obvious ethical violations, but because he embodies the model of legitimate governance they have worshipped for the past two centuries. At the heart of most of my own work has been an effort to recast this fundamental theological model of power and authority, both in thought and worship, in a way appropriate to the principles of a democratic, federal republic. I am presently working on making available my earlier writings, such as God’s Federal Republic, as a kind of legacy doorjamb to keep the door to this effort open for an emerging generation. Stay tuned.

It has taken over two centuries for the model of government according to constitutional agreement, persuasion, and equality to slowly, very slowly, transform and expand our public life. Today, we are in a new phase of our struggle toward a “more perfect” republic. It is not surprising that resistance to opening up our public life to wider participation reappears in the regalia of patriarchy and despotic claims of monarchical power. The recrudescence of patriarchal appeals to biological identities and male dominion threaten to corrupt and maim our republican form itself. Locke and Filmer could return today and join the fray with only a momentary gasp at the technology around them. Both of them would also be amazed by the way the republican ideals of citizenship, equality, and mutual agreement have reshaped family, economy, and communal life.

Some of our present travail is pure farce. The would-be emperor has no clothes, and Toto will soon pull back the curtain hiding the Wizard of Oz. But much of it is also a tragic paralysis of our republic before the very real threats of rapid climate change, rapacious concentrations of economic power, and corrupted governments.

As we enter this new year, I hope we can have more chances to return to vigorous renewal of the republican principles of our founding as well as to the patient work of extending its democratic promise to ever-wider circles of citizenship based on promise and hope rather than biological necessity and patriarchal power. This is not merely a political task, for it re-engages us in unfinished challenges to our theology, worship, and patterns of sexual life. As always, I’m interested in where you’re dipping your own oars in these waters.


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