If we can get past “woker than thou” self-righteous posturing of lefty social-justice warriors, it is not hard to see that there is widespread agreement among United Methodists, of all political and theological stripes, that racism is a serious sin and social evil that should be combatted.
And at least at the level of rhetoric, there is at least widely claimed agreement that we should be kind and loving in our treatment of others, including those who disagree with us on important issues.
But at a recent suburban Chicago gathering of the main unofficial caucus of liberal United Methodists, the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN), I saw plenty unchecked willingness to lovelessly demonize faithful United Methodists, along with repeated hints of racism.
The annual “Winter Warming” event is a one-day retreat primarily for activists of the dominant, ultra-liberal faction of the UMC’s Northern Illinois Conference. For the last several years, that conference’s bishop, Sally Dyck, has appeared to show her support for the event and its content, as she did again this year. This year’s keynote speaker was the LGBTQ activist now calling herself M Barclay.
At several points, Barclay, who is white, went out of her way to single out white people as a problem in some rather non sequitur ways. Ironically, this seemed to betray hints of a particular sort of white racism.
She declared that “it was the white missionaries who took homophobia and transphobia” to other people groups. She simplistically called resistance to LGBTQ activism among non-white Global South populations “the product of white missionaries.” Among other things, such talk insultingly erases the history of African American missionaries, who preached the same biblical Gospel as their white co-laborers, or the long histories of Christianity in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa that began many centuries before the great Western missions movements of much later centuries. Not to mention the rather non-factual suggestion that resistance to LGBTQ ideology is somehow unique to Bible-believing Christians.
Barclay eventually conceded one distinction between traditional Christian believers who don’t share her ideology: the contrast between “the white evangelical pastor of a large church who believes that God hates gay people” vs. “the struggling low-income church” whose members are non-native English speakers and which “doesn’t have access to resources on gender.”
Without further elaboration, she went on to declare that the idea that in the UMC’s sexuality debates, there is a linear spectrum, from “the left” to “the middle” to “the right,” is something that harmfully “serves the interests of white people and large churches,” somehow.
Then she spoke about the supposedly common “white pastor of a thriving congregation who spews hateful theology.” She cast this archetypical individual, who sounded rather unlikable, as the main enemy for the gathered liberal activists’ main cause of LGBTQ liberation.
It is easy enough to understand the negative rhetoric about “large churches” and “thriving congregations” as largely a matter of old-fashioned jealousy. While there are plenty of exceptions, it is hard to miss such broad patterns of the UMC’s largest and fastest-growing congregations largely being led by biblically grounded evangelical pastors, while regions and congregations of the UMC offering a secularized theology, that drops biblical standards for self-control which have become counter-cultural, are dying on the vine.
For example, one of the just three individuals who this Northern Illinois Conference’s clergy chose to represent them at the last General Conference was outspoken liberal activist Gregory Gross. Few who were there could forget how Gross distinguished himself by going to the microphone to angrily, baselessly, and rather crazily accuse the moderate presiding bishop of somehow “telegraphing votes.” Until recently, Gross was listed among the “staff and leadership” of a Chicago congregation. With such pastoral leadership, it is no wonder that this congregation is rapidly declining, with its average worship attendance having collapsed down to 25. (It’s not clear how this tiny, aggressively liberal congregation would survive without the rent money it receives from a larger African immigrant congregation.)
But what’s with Barclay’s choice to repeatedly attach the word “white” to her perceived enemies, even when she knows that orthodox United Methodism is actually racially and culturally diverse?
Out of the 100 or so attendees at this conference, I observed very, very few people of color. Perhaps these largely white, Chicago-area liberals feel more righteous by imagining themselves to be more of a rainbow coalition than they actually are, and by imagining their opponents as caricatured oppressors.
The phrase “romantic racism” has been used to describe a particular form of white racism that may initially seem more benign than more violent or hateful varieties. Romantic racism is characterized by patronizingly idealizing members of a victimized racial group by imagining them to broadly share some positive qualities, in ways which are ultimately condescending and which fail to appreciate the uniqueness of individuals. This sort of racism has a long history, from old notions of “the noble savage” to infantilizing stereotypes of blacks that sometimes appeared among 19th century abolitionists.
A common thread running through Barclay’s racial rhetoric was that white people are the main actors and teachers, while others are childlike, passive recipients.
Darker-skinned Christians in the Global South were not assigned any responsibility for their own choices to teach traditional biblical theology about marriage and sexuality and take actions contrary to Barclay’s cause. She only assigned blame to “white missionaries.” Admitting the reality of non-white missionaries and evangelists would complicate this narrative, so it was apparently better to just erase such important non-white Christian leaders from history.
Within the USA, Barclay gave no quarter in harshly denouncing traditionalist Christian believers as “hateful” if they were white, non-poor, and in a “thriving congregation.” For such individuals, she saw no reason to offer an ounce of charity or benefit of the doubt in considering if there is any possible reason they may have to disagree with her other than simply being evil, hateful people. While the longtime RMN leader is doubtless unable to name a single United Methodist pastor who actually teaches “that God hates gay people,” she has no problem bearing false witness with her broad claims about the true motives of the large and growing majority of our denomination who support biblical teaching.
Barclay did concede that other than “hate,” two alternative motivators for those who disagree with her are “ignorance,” or else vulnerable people fearing that church surrender to LGBTQ activist demands “will make their suffering worse.” I do not recall her being entirely clear on that last point, but it seemed she may have, at least in part, been hinting at the negative financial impacts that liberalizing denominational standards may have on ministries and regions that are financially dependent on the rest of the church.
But the problem with the hypothetical low-income, immigrant congregation in America, which Barclay contrasted to the “big church” with a “white evangelical pastor,” was that these poor people were simply ignorant. The implication was that if only enlightened white people like Ms. Barclay could re-educate such people with her own superior wisdom, then they could see the light and be converted to earning the status of LGBTQ allies.
It is hard to see any hint of Golden-Rule Christian grace in the broad rhetoric of this hero of the RMN movement about church folk who disagree with her, demonizing some of us as evildoers pure and simple and infantilizing others of us as ignorant children in need of being tutored in her unquestionably superior wisdom.
When such a speaker speaks of the ONLY possible reasons behind traditionalist Christians’ disagreement with her ideology as our either being nasty, evil people callously spreading hate and oppression or else our being child-like, ignorant victims, this of course discourages her audiences from considering any other possibilities to actually understand us in more accurate, nuanced ways.
From this event, it seems that understanding Christian believers outside of their ideological camp and by extension, treating us as generously as they themselves would like to be treated, are not high priorities of the leadership of groups like RMN or the Northern Illinois Conference.
I have long said that it is unfair to judge an entire group or large movement by the bad behavior of a few individual supporters with no prominence or leadership role. So it is not fair for me to blame the entirety of liberal United Methodism responsible for the stray liberals who call our office telling me to “rot in Hell” or who write us such messages as “I hate you bastards.” (Yes, these are actual examples.)
But M Barclay is far more than just some individual. This keynote speaker has emerged as a prominent national leader of liberal United Methodism.
And remember, Bishop Sally Dyck went out of her way to participate and show her support for this event, even with its destructive agendas (see more here) and dehumanizing rhetoric. And the bishop has quite the track record of her own unhinged rhetoric and demonizing misrepresentations of those she regards as The Other.
So when less prominent liberal United Methodists activists engage in racism (both in terms of rhetoric and actual systemic racism – for examples see here, here, here, and here), treat less liberal believers like dirt, and otherwise dehumanize United Methodists outside their narrow ideological faction, they are also reflecting the dehumanization and demonization which their leaders like Miss Barclay and Bishop Dyck model for them.
And when less known, grassroots liberals supporting groups like RMN let their passions overwhelm them so that they really go overboard in attacking folk who disagree with them (which in multiple instances has actually crossed the line into physical confrontation), then they are simply taken to their natural conclusions the negative, unholy passions their leaders like Barclay and Dyck actively stoke in such unqualified and irresponsible ways.
And when we see the pattern of liberal United Methodist activists adopting a prideful attitude of NEVER, ever apologizing for even their most extreme rudeness and other mistreatment of believers who have dared to be less liberal than themselves, they are simply following the example their leaders like Dyck, Barclay, Gross, and others have consistently set for them, in my observation. It is worth stressing that Barclay is an ordination candidate, Gross is a clergy leader in his conference, and Dyck is a bishop. And of course, the theology these leaders espouse of diminishing the centrality of repentance and of recognizing the fundamentally fallen, sinful nature of humanity naturally leads to such patterns of lacking the personal humility to apologize.
Of course, all individuals are ultimately responsible for their own actions.
But those in leadership positions also bear great responsibility for what they encourage in others, thus the famous warning from James about how “not many of you should be teachers” in the church.
As our denomination approaches big decisions that are ultimately about whether our standards for those in the church who are especially set apart for ordained leadership should be stronger or weaker, this is worth keeping in mind.