by Barton Gingerich (@bjgingerich)
As the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society held its annual board meeting, leaders of the social witness organization bid adieu to General Secretary Jim Winkler. He has served as head of the UMC’s official lobbying arm for nearly 13 years. An outspoken advocate for political liberalism, Winkler has faithfully piloted the GBCS in its traditionally leftward trajectory to the very end, as revealed in his latest devotion and speech to the board.
At the February 28th opening chapel service, Winkler offered a political spin on the prophet Isaiah. After he belied his textual criticism leanings by dividing the book into the “first, second, and maybe even third Isaiah,” the general secretary concluded the prophecies therein “call us…to work for peace and justice.” “You’ll see [the prophet] condemning the upper classes who are rich and pampered, concerned only for material possessions and pleasures,” Winkler declared. He noted that such a message is especially relevant “in a world where the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, where immigrants are being deported and being denied health care and education…where the misuse of God’s resources threaten God’s creation itself.”
Winkler clearly identified the GBCS staffers as modern-day prophets. “A prophet was not one whose job it was to foretell, but the prophet was one whose job it was to forth-tell,” he contended, “to act as a legitimate spokesperson for the divine.” Winkler explained, “Prophets never accept the status quo. In fact, their role is to challenge it. In our time, when many seem to think Christianity goes hand in hand with certain visions of the world, it is important to remember…there’s never been a conservative prophet.” Continuing this anachronistic theme, the GBCS head seemed to think the Scriptures demand advocacy for liberal policies. “Prophets are never called to conserve social orders based on inequities, on power, on privilege, and wealth,” he claimed, “It was in fact the conservative forces…that were in every instance the bitterest opponent of the prophets and their mission for justice.”
The GBCS spokesman got more specific during his Saturday evening farewell address. He mentioned the difficult 50% staff reduction after the 2000 General Conference decreased its world service funding by 25%. He also recalled his opposition to the Iraq War, which worsened already bad tensions within the UMC. Winkler glossed over the long and costly court battle to free up the assets of the United Methodist Building to cover the GBCS’s expensive progressivist lobbying initiatives. Moreover, the Winkler led the GBCS in “measures that will reduce gun violence,” condemnation of the sequester, fights against any cuts to the SNAP food stamp program, and “immigration reform…a way our church can follow the biblical mandate to look out for the sojourner.”
Despite his brilliant record, Winkler was upset by “the dominant narrative of scarcity, which is being peddled by those who are determined to hold onto every last bit of privilege and power.” He worried that “the government has been preoccupied with cutting the deficit, as if the sole purpose of government is to achieve a tidy row of zeroes on the budget’s balance line.” “We must lift an alternate vision of God’s economy of abundance and places the needs of those on economic margins at the very center of policy conversations and missions,” the oldline spokesman cajoled.
If the lauds Winkler received during the toasts tell anything, it is that the General Board of Church and Society hopes to find a suitably leftist general secretary to take Winkler’s place. United Methodists can probably look forward to official spokespeople peddling leftist tropes in the immediately foreseeable future.