By Bill Mefford
So, I have been rereading some of the really good history books I have because I learn so much about building movements from those who have gone before us and history is one of the main ways I experience the presence of God, It really is. One of those books is Speak Against the Day, by John Egerton, which beautifully details the struggle for African American civil rights before the modern-day civil rights movement began in the mid-50s.
In one small paragraph, something stuck out to me. In the late 1940s, early 50s there was a fight in Georgia politics between “moderate” white politicians like William B. Hartsfield (and yes the Atlanta airport is named after him) and more over racist politicians like Gene Talmadge. The fight was over control of the Democratic party in much of the state and especially Atlanta. All politicians in the South were Democrats - the Republicans would not come into power the South until Nixon’s southern strategy in 68 and 72.
Hartsfield was Mayor of Atlanta and was considered, for the time at least, as being a moderate on race issues. Still, he sensed the rising racist backlash following World War II when returning African American veterans were coming back to the states and were no longer content to take a back seat anymore, figuratively and literally. Hartsfield was a politician first and a moderate second. He was not about to risk his political career to support the aims of African Americans - a career that stretched as Mayor for over twenty years - unless he could be assured he was going to have enough votes. He wasn’t driving public opinion; public opinion was driving him.
So, he told African American leaders that if they could register ten thousand people to vote he would remain a moderate. They registered eighteen thousand.
This stood out to me because for far too long progressives have believed that if they get someone they like and who sounds like them into a decision-making position, then we can sit back and assume they will do our bidding. That is wrong, wrong, wrong.
Hartsfield is considered one of the best mayors in Atlanta’s history and yet, African American leaders in the late 40s did not assume he was with them. They knew better. They made him take action by applying significant political pressure to hold him accountable.
Reading this took me back to 2014 when President Obama’s administration had repeatedly told me and other immigrant rights advocates that they were doing all they could to reform the broken immigration system all the while they had deported 2 million undocumented immigrants! It was no longer worth having a “friend” in the White House who was not doing what was right.
So, against the advice of other faith groups and many other DC-based organizations who would do anything to protect their access to Democratic power and who told us not to rock the boat even at the expense of the suffering of immigrant sisters and brothers, a small group of us on President’s Day committed civil disobedience in front of the White House, protesting the reliance on deportations. White House staffers left me angry messages on my phone and groups like Sojourners were not happy we did this. We rocked the boat, but later that year President Obama issued the long-awaited deferred action for DREAMers.
Once again, this only happened through significant political pressure to hold the president accountable.
All of this brings me to where the United Methodist Church is. The church has effectively been taken over by fundamentalists who distort Scripture so much that they actually believe righteousness will be attained by hounding LGBTQ people out of the church through trials, false accusations, and other condemnatory behavior. This is one screwed up theology and I wan’t nothing to do with it.
But for too long progressives in the church have wrongly believed, as many did with President Obama, that having someone who at least uses the same progressive rhetoric meant that full inclusion and egalitarian structures were right around the corner. I have been hearing that for years. And you know what? It hasn’t happened. You know what else? It won’t happen. We don’t need progressive bishops or agency heads. We need structural change.
Having progressive bishops and progressives in charge of general boards and agencies hasn’t yielded a damn thing in this regard. We have only managed to employ a helluva lot of progressives in church work. Let’s remember the past (and the present): nothing happens, nothing changes without significant political pressure.
So, briefly, what can that look like? I think it is happening in many ways. LGBTQ and POC clergy are dreaming of what lies next, people are having conversations and what is increasingly implicit in these conversations is that the United Methodist Church is no longer able to be a conduit for what we are called to as people seeking liberation for individuals and the entire planet. It’s broke and while I know some want to fight for the welfare of the institution I prefer to fight for the manifestation of God’s Kin-dom on earth.
Our lesson is that having nice people who seem to share what we believe and hold to be true is not enough. To live out what we want for the world requires us coming together in power and finding new ways to dream and new structures and networks to carry out those dreams. Our leadership have proven themselves unequipped to lead us to this because they are so wed to the current structure for their own welfare and benefit.
So the question is put to you and I: do we have the passion and commitment to birth a new movement.
I am ready. How about you?