In the United Methodist Church, we have a bullshit problem. It’s been piling up of late. Observe this trend:
- In March of 2014, Bishop Martin McLee (RIP) of the New York Annual Conference set a precedent in announcing a Just Resolution of the complaint against UM Elder and former seminary dean, Thomas Ogletree. This Just Resolution resulted in a day of holy conversation with representatives from across the theological spectrum.
- In October, 2014, Bishop Peggy Johnson of Pennsylvania announced a Just Resolution against 36 clergy who had participated in a same-gender wedding. The result: the clergy had to acknowledge a violation of the Discipline, but Bishop Johnson also “pledged” that future violations of a similar nature would “will be handled swiftly and with significant and appropriate consequences, which may include a trial, involuntary leave of absence without pay, or other significant consequences.”
- A month later, in November 2014, Bishop Deborah Kiesey announced that a Just Resolution had beed reached against two Michigan clergy who had conducted same-sex marriages. No comment on the complaint procedure was given by Bishop Kiesey, nor by the complainants, who remained anonymous. (The plaintiffs, in recognition of their victory, attended a public celebration shortly after the announcement.)
- In January 2015, the Western Jurisdiction announced a Just Resolution had been reached in the complaint against retired Bishop Melvin Talbert, who had participated in a same-gender wedding ceremony against the request of both the resident Bishop in Alabama and the Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops. The result of this Just Resolution was a one-page document which said nothing either interesting or significant.
- Just last week, Bishop Trimble of the Iowa Conference announced a Just Resolution in the complaint against Rev. Dr. Larry Sonner. The result was a relatively long and comprehensive document whose only real action item is a letter which Dr. Sonner is required to write that amounts to, “I’m sorry some people feel that way.”
Notice the trajectory developed in a very short period of time: from a resolution that called for a public event (something significant & costly at least happened), to a resolution which promised future consequences in exchange for avoiding them at present, and lastly to “Just Resolutions” that quite literally result in nothing happening. (Other than the progressive wing of the church taking them for what they clearly are, despite all the administrative rhetoric to the contrary: unambiguous victories.)
To be sure, these Just Resolutions had much blood, sweat, and tears poured into them. Some of them even put up quite beautiful smoke screens: quotes from the Book of Discipline, soul-searching, hand-wringing, and apparently sincere language of “accountability” and “unity” abound throughout . But as Henry Frankfurt says in his classic essay On Bullshit, “However studiously and conscientiously the bullshitter proceeds, it remains true that he is also trying to get away with something.” (23)
Someone has to say it:
The Emperor Has No Clothes
In Hans Christian Anderson’s classic story, a vain and foolish king is tricked into going around naked because no one will tell him the truth: the clothes he thinks he is wearing simply don’t exist. At the end of the fable, an innocent child, who has no need of the monarch’s favor, is blunt enough to say the obvious.
In that same spirit, let me suggest something many of us know instinctively, but which we’ve just been too polite to say: these Just Resolutions are neither just nor resolutions. They are bureaucratic punts which are, at best, designed to avoid the monetary and PR costs of church trials (To be fair, Bill Arnold saw this clearly at the outset, and said so in the NYAC panel.) This may have been the intention at the beginning, and it’s an understandable one. At present, however, we are avoiding any tangible form of accountability and yet celebrating resolutions that are anything but; this means the resulting illusion of due process and a unified church under the Discipline is nothing short of bullshit in a precise, even academic, sense. “It is just this lack of connection to a concern with the truth – this indifference,” says the Princeton philosopher Frankfurt, “to how things really are – that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.” (33-34)
I won’t argue that the Just Resolutions named above do not follow the letter of the law. What I would suggest instead is that touting these as if they resolve anything, or as if they maintain the integrity of the church, is to engage in pure fantasy. Again, Frankfurt notes, “the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.” (47)
Bullshit vs. Lying
To be clear: I’m not saying we’re being lied to. I’m saying, with Frankfurt, we’re
being treated like we are idiots. The Emperor has no clothes, but is prancing about declaring, “Resolution! Resolution!” when the things which are purported to hold us together are only further tearing the fabric of our fellowship. The Discipline is followed, but it’s all smoke and mirrors because the church is no better for it: “The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong.” (48)
Unfortunately, bullshit is actually worse than lying.
Worse Than Lies
In the case of the above complaints, a lie would be better than all of this mounting bullshit. Tell me there’s been significant (but private) consequences. Tell me due to personal illness, the complaint has been put on hold indefinitely. Tell me it was lost in the mail. All of these would show more respect for the truth than the bullshit resolutions that are currently in vogue. Frankfurt argues that the bullshitter
“…does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” (61)
Legal Fiction or Covenant Integrity?
The Just Resolutions are, increasingly, little more than institutional bullshit. They substitute a concern for truth and adherence to reality for a mirage of accountability wrapped up in enough legalese to make a Church of Scientology lawyer weep. This is not about the good of the church, it’s about maintaining an illusion of integrity while doing nothing.
“For the bullshitter, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” (56)
Finally, this trend represents what Rabbi Edwin Friedman called a “quick fix mentality.” One of the characteristics of a “chronically anxious family” is this focus on a fast remedy rather than comprehensive change. Friedman describes this mentality as, “a low threshold for pain that constantly seeks symptom relief rather than fundamental change.” (Failure of Nerve, p. 54) Read in the most charitable way possible, the present ubiquity of Just Resolutions has its origin in an aversion to acute pain (via trials) that manifests as a choice for a short-term faux peace instead of either a modicum of order or what Robert Quinn would call “deep change.”
A Personal Postscript: Cards on the Table
If you’ve hung in this far, there’s a good chance you think I’m a jerk.
That’s fine. You are, of course, free to think that. But I’m actually not opposed to change in the church. In distinction to many of my evangelical and conservative colleagues, I do not believe that the human sexuality debate represents a first-order doctrinal concern, which for me would be a non-negotiable. I believe this is about people of good will with different hermeneutics who all love Jesus and want what’s best for the church. Moreover, I believe it’s mostly about hospitality: the UMC needs the presence and witness of LGBTQ persons, and we need to figure out a way to welcome our neighbors better. Moreover, we need to recognize serious burdens that our current polity places on ministry in some areas of the Connection. (Those pushing for change should also recognize the resulting difficulties that this could bring for their colleagues and neighbors.)
I don’t have an easy answer for you. I could live in a church that answers this challenge by recognizing the inherent complexities and granting some flexibility, perhaps by region or some other distinction in our structure. But currently our Discipline is clear about what we as clergy are and are not permitted to do, like it or not. In the meantime, it’s deeply problematic for our Bishops and other leaders to seek out and celebrate “Resolutions” which do an end-run around real accountability and instead amount to a de facto change in church teaching and polity, powers which lie with the General Conference alone.
And by “deeply problematic,” I mean it’s pure and simple bullshit.