Accountability Misfire

By Bill Mefford, photo by United Methodist News Service

In response to a complaint filed against Attorney General Jeff Sessions by over 600 fellow United Methodists that charged Sessions with violating church law by engaging in what amounted to child abuse through initiating his “zero-tolerance” policy of separating families seeking asylum, the District Superintendent in Mobile, AL dismissed the complaint entirely.

In the above article, Mark Tooley, who leads the far-right group, Institute on Religion and Democracy, which regularly accuses progressive United Methodists of failing to follow Scripture according to their rigid interpretation, said the complaint was a “publicity stunt” and that “most United Methodists would probably be very troubled by the idea that someone who dissented from the political statements of the church could face a formal complaint or even expulsion." Now, we have to remember that for years now followers of the IRD and other conservative groups in the United Methodist Church regularly bring charges against LGBTQ elders in the church and against those who perform same-gender weddings.

Taking all of this in brings to my mind Jesus' charge against the Pharisees. He states in Matthew 23, "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices--mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” (v. 23)

Without offering a hearing of any kind or taking any known steps beyond consulting the Book of Discipline, the District Superintendent of Sessions’ home church in Alabama quietly dismissed a legitimate complaint filed by well over 600 other United Methodists over a policy of separating parents from their children in order to stop people fleeing violence and applying for asylum in the United States. The policy, like most policies initiated by this administration, was put in place to limit migration for those with black and brown skin. In her letter to the complainants, the D.S. wrote that she dismissed the complaint because “a political action is not personal conduct when the political officer is carrying out official policy.” In so doing, the church has likely become an accomplice to institutional racism. 

Doing this essentially lays out a welcome mat for the leaders for all oppressive governments who yearn to gain legitimacy from an institutional global church who will allow one’s public engagement to be bifurcated from their individual morality. This means that any government official who engages in child abuse, religious persecution, extrajudicial killings, torture, or even genocide can find sanctuary in United Methodist churches because, as so many have claimed before to defend their participation in injustice, they were only following orders. 

The United Methodist Church may be in decline, but perhaps we have found a demographic for congregational growth: oppressive governmental leaders. So, let’s issue a welcome to Erdogan from Turkey, Duterte from the Philippines, King Abdul-Aziz from Saudi Arabia, Omar al-Bashir from Sudan, Putin from Russia, and of course, trump and Sessions from the United States – have we got a church for you!

What makes this particularly sickening for United Methodists to stomach is when we hear people like Mark Tooley, calling this effort to call out child abuse and oppression rooted in racism, a “publicity stunt.” Yet, all the while, he and other conservative groups in the UMC like the Wesleyan Covenant Association, Good News, and the Confessing Movement say absolutely nothing to condemn the vile treatment of children by this anti-family, anti-life administration. We hear nothing from these supposedly pro-family, pro-life fundamentalists even though hundreds of these children remain separated from their parents. Many of them will be permanently so. 

But their silence is ended the moment an ordained United Methodist elder performs a wedding for two people of the same gender who love one another and want to spend their lives together, raising a family, serving God, and being a part of their local United Methodist church. While Tooley is outraged that people in the United Methodist Church would dare hold child abusers accountable, he has no problem urging his fellow conservatives to repeatedly file complaint after complaint after complaint against United Methodists who persist in ministering to ALL United Methodists, regardless of who they love. He has no problem urging his fellow United Methodists to persecute those who have the holy boldness of living out loud who God has created them to be. Tooley is ok with a church that provides sanctuary to child abusers, but he is outraged by a church that welcomes ALL people and which takes a biblically-based stand against state-sponsored terror being directed at immigrants of color. 

Hypocrisy is not a strong enough word to contain this befuddling contradiction. It truly is sickening. 

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