I write this essay in the shadow of denominational chaos for the United Methodist Church and in the shadow of the ongoing chaos of our country under the leadership of our current administration. I should say that I am not a member of the United Methodist Church, but I am Wesleyan in my theological orientation and in my ordination. I am ordained (licensed in 1977 and ordained in 1985) by the Church of God (Anderson, Ind.), a member of the Wesleyan branch of the Protestant church. Thus, I see myself as a “kissing cousin” to the United Methodist Church and have worked in its congregations, mentored some of its pastors, and worked on national level projects for them. As for my role in the United States, I was born in central Alabama on a farm. I am a native to this country, a descendent from people enslaved on the land and from people who were native to the continent. I voted as soon as I could. I cast my first vote for president in 1980, when I voted for Carter who lost to Ronald Reagan. These two issues may seem unrelated at first glance, but I am aware that resistance and the need for it is never a unilateral or one-dimensional reality. The need for a posture of resistance is multi-layered.
On April 28, 2017, the United Methodist Church’s Judicial Council ruled in Decision 1341 that the consecration of Bishop Karen Oliveto, elected by the Western Jurisdiction of the church in July 2016, was illegal and that she should be tried, according to church processes. I was in Denver, Colorado when the ruling came through and scheduled to preach Sunday at Christ Church (UMC), a member of the denomination’s Reconciling Ministries Network, an open and affirming network of Methodists hoping to change their denomination from within.
I also was in Denver in my role as the president of WomanPreach! Inc., our organization that seeks to help preachers strengthen their preaching voice, especially on social justice issues. Several of the women attending the gathering were United Methodist and, by the time we gathered Friday evening, had heard the ruling and were in various states of grief and anger. There would be no way forward in our training without praying with and thinking with these friends about how they would see themselves in their home denomination going forward. The seemingly easy answer has been for non-UMC people to say, “Leave!” But I take to heart the words of many of my colleagues and friends who are long-time members of the church, as long as fourth or fifth generational members, who so that it is easy for those on the outside looking in to tell people to leave their theological home. But many have decided to fight for another reality. They have decided to resist the church’s book of discipline as unjust law. Or as Union United Methodist Church-Boston’s pastor Jay Williams noted in a public Facebook post April 29, reflecting on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “King lifted up the extremist love of Jesus as the ultimate model for prophetic resistance to and defiance of unjust laws” (posted at 3:19 pm EDT).
On the political front, threat of war with North Korea is in the air. The current administration has been chiseling away at policies and governmental agencies that are in place to help care for our environment, our children’s education, and to maintain safety nets for people made poor or vulnerable by public and private economic exploitation. Healthcare as a right for the “general welfare of” the citizenry is being dismantled. There seems to be so much more going on that we cannot see, but we “feel” and it shows up in the angst and anxiety people display.
In church and in the larger society, there is much to resist. But how? On February 14, 2017, the New York Times published an article on resisting politically in our times. Suggestions ranged from “put your body on the line” to “be informed” to “go on record” to “don’t buy into the wrong vision.” As I reread this article, quoting several activists, I begin to imagine from my perspective of a preacher-professor-activist how to translate these words for the worshiping moment. And then, I saw it in action at Christ Church on Sunday, April 30.
Thoughtfully prepared worship that cares about what’s happening in the world and in the life of one’s community of faith is the best form of resistance. Songs that sing a liberating faith such as David Haas’s “We are Called” ask us to resist as we sing “Come! Open your heart!” The rest of the verse admonishes us to be hope for the hopeless. What better resistance is that? That was only one of the songs sung Sunday morning that resist despair and giving in to normalizing hatred or fear. Each song reflected a call to discipleship that was also a call to resist anything that was not life-giving, life-sustaining, or freedom-producing.
This call to resist also was in the pastor’s opening statement in which he asked the congregation to stand and affirm once again their communal commitment to being an open and affirming congregation, a congregation where Black Lives Matter, a congregation where all bodily abilities are treasured and honored, and more. He read a statement from their bishop on how difficult a time it was for the denomination. But he insisted that as a congregation, sad and dismayed as they were, they would also keep their commitments made in faithfulness toward all God’s people. This statement was followed by a litany, written by a minister on staff, that used Galatians 5:22-23 (the fruit of the Spirit) and the refrain “Against such, there is no law,” reflecting both that text and a statement by the Reconciling Ministries Network. In other words, the words used in worship matter. This congregation did not dance around the issues. They said it out loud. As a visiting preacher, I rested in the pew where I was sitting (I decided not to sit in the pulpit), feeling assured that what I had to say would resonate with a congregation so resolute as reflected in their worship.
Finally, resistance was reflected at the words of institution over the communion table. The lectionary text for Sunday, April 30, was Luke 24:13-35, and I was the preacher. It is one of my favorite “post-resurrection” texts. My sermon title was “Eyes Wide Open,” and without fully recounting the sermon, followed the basic theme that even after the appearing and disappearing Jesus explained himself through scripture, they still did not recognize him. They needed communion. As important as sacred texts might be in helping us locate ourselves theologically and in our communities of faith, it is in sharing bread—meals and ministry—that we come to know the risen Christ. Eating together is what introduces us to a hope beyond death and death-dealing ways. At table with his disciples in Emmaus, He took bread, blessed, and broke it and their eyes were open. And every time we do it, we remember Jesus, the radical resister rabbi who was killed for it in the Roman Empire.
Our resistance is deeply tied in building community in a way that goes beyond the lines of demarcation. In my preaching, I told a story I repeat often from Karen Ward, the founding abbess of the Church of the Apostles in Seattle, Washington. A young man who “did not believe in homosexuals” joined the church. She did not fight with him. She asked him to join the questioning group that met at another member’s home. A man who was homosexual and his partner led the group. After six months with the group, this young man changed. He had to read scripture differently and to worship differently. But it wasn’t the study of scripture; it was the gathering with believers who were different from him that opened the door for his transformation. Worship at the communion table opens that door and allows for members of the same communion to invite one another to other tables.
In the same way, a young woman in Columbus, OH decided after the election that she didn’t know what to do to start having different conversations among her neighbors. She decided to start having soup Sundays for anyone connected with her on Facebook. The election in November had thrown her and she was losing friends because, she said, she could not comprehend why anyone would have voted for our current president. People have taken her up on these Sunday meals. And they have come from various points of view, which has challenged the gathering more than once. But they made a covenant not to succumb to merely “polite conversation” and also not to run from hard conversations. Time will tell whether this form of resistance, this form of communion beyond the sanctuary, will make a difference, too.
In these days of chaos and disruption, worship has to be a place of theological and biblical affirmation of God who loves justice and wants freedom for us. Affirmation of these truths is an act of resistance in the presence of governmental laws and policies that dehumanize and threaten the wellbeing of people, whether in church or civil government. That affirmation isn’t always apparent in biblical texts, but I believe it is also true of the bible’s God. And we, as people who journey toward freedom continually, must always invite others along the way. Our invitation should be apparent in our singing, our prayers, our preaching, and our rituals from table talk to wading in the waters of baptism. These things are most true to me today as I stand with the resistance.
Valerie Bridgeman is Associate Professor of Homiletics and Hebrew Bible at Methodist Theological School in Ohio and founding president of WomanPreach! Inc., the premier organization bringing preachers to full prophetic voice, especially as it relates to issues regarding women and children.
“Decision No. 1341 of the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church, http://www.umc.org/decisions/71953. Accessed April 29, 2017.
‘Resist’ Is a Battle Cry, but What Does It Mean? February, 14, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/14/us/politics/resist-anti-trump-protest.html. Accessed April 27, 2017. A version of this article appears in print on February 15, 2017, on Page A10 of the New York edition with the headline: ‘Resist’ Becomes a New Battle Cry.
For a good history of this song, read C. Michael Hawn, “History of Hymns: ‘We Are Called’ (‘Come! Live in the Light’),” https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-we-are-called-come-live-in-the-light. Accessed May 1, 2017.
Matt Berryman, “Where God has Already Proclaimed There is no Such Law,” http://www.rmnetwork.org/newrmn/god-already-proclaimed-no-law/. Accessed April 29.