Illustration courtesy of Hacking Christianity.net
Grand Admiral Thrawn
An illustration of the character Grand Admiral Thrawn from the Star Wars paperback novel, Choices One.
Star Wars is a sci-fi conflict between the Rebellion and the Empire. In the movies, it is a black/white conflict: The Rebellion is good, the Empire is bad. Even Darth Vader/Anakin who betrays and kills the Emperor is a really bad guy when you get down to it.
So when you read the blog post heading, your temptation might be to say “Sigh…Jeremy is painting the UMC as the evil empire again” or something like that. But I’m not. Given that I’m a Star Wars fan, I recognize that there’s a lot more going on below the surface of any side of the galactic conflict.
Here’s my assertion: I think the philosophical tension that is explored in the extended universe of Star Wars can inform the current conflict in the post-General Conference 2012 United Methodist Church.
In the extended Star Wars universe of the books and comics, there’s a lot more backstory and philosophy behind the values and actions of the Empire and the Rebellion. In Timothy Zahn’s latest book Choices of One, he succintly outlines one of the major understandings of the Empire: diversity is bad, unity is good. The Imperial Grand Admiral Thrawn (one of the most popular characters in the non-movie universe) compares the egalitarian philosophy of the Rebellion with the more hegemonic philosophy of the Empire:
“Thrawn didn’t think much of the Rebels…his study of the Republic had given him a dim view of any governing body that relied on the consensus of dozens of species, each of which had its own way of thinking about the universe and one another. In Thrawn’s view, a strong unified government was the only way the galaxy would survive…”
- Jorj Car’das, Choices of One, page 124 (hardback)
“[The Rebellions'] chances for long-term stability are nonexistent. Multiple species, with multiple viewpoints and racial philosophies, simply cannot hold power together for long. The dominant voice must certainly be wise enough to adopt ideas and methods from its allies and member peoples. But there must be a dominant voice, or there is only chaos. In this galaxy, that voice is the Empire…”
- Grand Admiral Thrawn, Choices of One, page 349 (hardback)
To Thrawn’s understanding, diversity is fine so long as there is a unity at the top. With so much diversity, they cannot hold power together for a long time one the dominant voices get challenged. With a ever-shifting leadership and consensus-building taking time, a diverse organization–be of worlds or of churches–needs a strong unity in leadership that adapts to its constituents.
Thawn’s understanding is admittedly the most charitable of the Empires. Given that he is an alien (he’s pictured above with blue skin and glowing red eyes) and the only alien to achieve the rank of Grand Admiral, his appreciation of diversity is more expressed. With the other warlords, they are not so charitable. In A New Hope, one of the first words uttered by Grand Moff Tarkin is “The Imperial Senate will no longer be of any concern to us. I’ve just received word that the Emperor has dissolved the council permanently. The last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away…the Regional Governors will now have direct control over their systems.” Thus, the diverse Senate of beings has been subjugated under the dominant voice which is likely more dominant (and human-centric) than Thrawn would have wanted.
- The Empire believes in Unity over Diversity, in that diversity is fine but a hegemonic unity must guide it to its betterment.
- The Rebellion (the Republic) believes in Unity in Diversity, in that a diverse group of beings must guide the whole galaxy to its betterment.
The United Methodist Church is also enmeshed in this same philosophical conflict. The Call To Action process, the UMC movement that this blog has been covering with no less than 30 blog posts over the past year, did not succeed at General Conference 2012 in one very important area: the total church reorganization known (eventually) as PlanUMC. As I posted the point and counterpoint on this blog, the reasons for its failure lie in constitutional interpretation. And article after article of responses post-GC have blamed this failure on Bishops, intractable leadership, fearmongering, playing-it-safe, the Gays, the South, the framework of the church, and me (yes, I have documented accusations…as if I had that much power…muhahaha). I refused to participate in the post-GC madness in favor of my typical approach: the long game. Perhaps it is better that I’m now on the West Coast as I’ll have two more hours in a day to reflect on world events. Maybe.
But to the point: the persistent claim is found in several forms that a narrow unity is required to guide the diversity in the United Methodist Church. For example:
- Adam Hamilton, in his conversation with young clergy/laity at GC2012, said that he was on the Board of an organization and the Board had like 60 people. “You can’t come to any form of consensus with 60 people” Hamilton said, which is why they have a smaller executive board that makes those decisions. I’m told that Hamilton’s church is structured the same way.
- The Call To Action proposal included a 15-member Executive Board that would be chosen by the outgoing leadership that would guide the UMC. It was dropped from the GC2012 considerations due to its extreme unpopularity with only 15 people representing the diversity of the UMC.
- Billy Abraham, in his article that sees inclusion as a theological error says that a mandated diversity of boards (he calls it a “quota system” or a “mutual admiration society”) is a theological error. He repeats the mantra that competency in the Gospel ought be the criteria, a position that benefits those with the heritage and language of the hegemony, and not those on the margins who benefit most (and benefit our relevance as a church) from mandated diversity.
- Finally, one of the post-GC emails sent around the UMC higher-ups referenced that the Church continues to allow that “Identity politics trumps competency.” In other words, the desire to have more people at the table and asking who is making what kind of motion is seen as more important than who is intelligent/experienced enough to effect change…and that’s a problem, apparently. Or a fallacy. Your call.
However, in our United Methodist tradition, there’s a strong understanding of Unity in Diversity that must be intellectually and ecclesiologically deemed as valid as well:
- As Gil Caldwell points out in the UMReporter, the Central Conferences (non-US regions of the UMC) can adapt their Book of Disciplines to their context and add/remove/altar sections as they see fit (so long as they don’t interfere with ordination standards). In our diversity, we are seen as unified even though our different regions (except the USA…hmm…) can make changes to our supposedly “common” doctrine and polity.
- There is no set standard questions to be asked by each Board of Ordained Ministry. Each develops their own criteria. While blood atonement would do you well in the South, it might be challenged differently in the Northeast. While offering communion to everyone would do you well in the West, it might be challenged differently in the South.
- Repeated conversations over homosexuality and abortion, repeated votes that were 60/40 or even 55/45, challenge the notion that we are of one mind on the topic and yet our discipline does not record which lines are in conflict. Thus, in our very book, we have a unity of diversity where the diversity is whitewashed away and yet year-after-year it is revisited again and will not let go.
- Regionalism has been at play in the UMC ever since before the North/South split. Even with unification, the UMC was divided into regions to ensure a Northern Bishop never came to the South; and indeed a central jurisdiction was created with non-geographic locality to put 99% of the black churches and ministers in. And yet they were called a Methodist Episcopal Church, one that in its unity laid apostolic claim to Christ. Today, the coastal regions (West and Northeast) are considered to be more liberal, and the Southern (Central and East) are considered to be the more conservative. And yet at GC, we all sit around the table together. Unity in Diversity, indeed.
The most common response to this is that “my church has a small board at the top, why is that a problem for the UMC?” While it is true that most churches are structured under a model where a small administrative board runs the church, they are also dealing with a smaller less-diverse culture. Even in a megachurch like Church of the Resurrection, the culture of the church is certainly narrower than the culture of the global Church or even the South Central jurisdiction. So comparing a locality to a global concern is an ecclesiological error, in my opinion, as it misunderstands the role of the church in comparison to the role of the Church (big C).
Unity in Diversity, or Unity over Diversity?
The UMC is constantly deciding whether, philosophically and ecclesiologically, they are more like the Rebellion or more like the Empire. Whether they believe that the entire church can govern representativly from its diversity, or that a narrow unity must govern with strong deference to the diversity of the church. Whether there’s a constant fear of chaos or a constant fear of an intractability out-of-touch hegemony. Whether they become more Catholic in their connectionalism, or more congregational in their connectionalism. It’s a tough decision that truly hits at how we view ourselves as the Church.
The question comes up more and more now that the narrow unity of US dominance is being displaced. Non-US delegates at General Conference came in at 40% this year. By 2020, there’s little reason to believe that the US will not be under 50% of the global church. How then can a narrow unity govern? But more importantly…how can a global diversity govern either?
In Star Wars, the answer became clear: the tendencies of a narrow unity to govern from their hegemony had far more disastrous effects on the galaxy than the “controlled chaos” of the Rebellion (Republic) model. While the pendulum swings further to one side or the other depending on the situation and the decade, the UMC could fare better numerically and in their relevant social witness if they are allowed to have more contextual freedom in our post-modern society and culture. Or they could be more attractive if they have strong identity and fixed doctrines that whitewash nuance in an “anything goes wishy-washy” culture.
I don’t know. But I’m excited to find out as I begin my new appointment in the UMC this coming Sunday in a new church, new city, new state, new region of United Methodism that I know little about. How will we be the Church? And can Sci-Fi inform this discussion in helpful ways?
- Does the UMC function better with a ‘unity over diversity’ or a ‘unity in diversity’ approach?
- If you choose one, what situations would the other philosophy fare better in?
The Rev. Jeremy Smith is the author of HackingChristianity.net, a groundbreaking blog site. Previously serving in Oklahoma, he became minister of discipleship at First United Methodist Church, Portland, OR, in July 2012.