United Methodist prophetic

Afghanistan, 9/11, and Failures of United Methodist Prophetic Witness

John Lomperis on September 16, 2021

Despite all of its self-righteous rhetoric about “being prophetic,” is the current leadership of the United Methodist Church (UMC) really capable of saying much on major public-policy and geopolitical challenges that is helpful, for either helping our members think better about such issues or promoting Christian values in the world?

That question again occurred to me as I read Thomas Kemper’s reflections (translated from a German United Methodist magazine) on the 20th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks.

Kemper was until recently the longtime CEO of the UMC’s largest denominational agency, the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM). He is now a part-time consultant for another UMC denominational agency.

While not a conservative evangelical, Kemper was known as a relatively more pragmatic, less ideologically driven agency leader. In person he can be downright charming.

His reflection includes much appropriate mourning, a recollection of his own direct experience with a terrorist attack in 2016, and affirmation of values he and I would share of wanting to see love ultimately triumph over hateful violence.

But amidst such good points, Kemper felt the need to fall into the habit many elite United Methodist bureaucrats have of “prophetically” pontificating on the decisions of political leaders:

Today, 20 years later, when I read these lines and see the pictures of desperate people from Afghanistan, I am overcome with sorrow and shame that we were not more courageous to stand up for a non-violent response, as Orlando and Phyllis [the parents of 9/11 victim Greg Rodriguez] did. Instead, it came to a military response, which not only dramatically worsened relationships between Muslims and Christians but also brought so much more suffering and so much more death to Afghanistan and many other parts of the world. In Afghanistan alone, the US invested $2 trillion in the war. And these days, we are witnessing the final failure of this response.

The last couple of decades in Afghanistan’s history raise complex, debatable questions, including about such matters as if, when, and how the U.S. military should have withdrawn.

But Kemper’s broad, unqualified language decrying the mere fact that part of America’s response back in late 2001 was violent is neither responsible nor morally serious.

Committed pacifists can sometimes helpfully challenge Christians to a deeper, more radical commitment to consistently following Jesus in our interpersonal interactions as individuals.

But at the level of the state, Romans 13 famously declares that the government “does not bear the sword in vain.” In his Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, which are part of the UMC’s official Doctrinal Standards, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, explained “the sword” as signifying “The instrument of capital punishment, which God authorizes him to inflict.”

The mass murders of 9/11 absolutely deserved both punishment and dramatic action to prevent the Taliban and al-Qaeda from repeating such atrocities. At the time that the U.S.-led military action was driving the Taliban from power, U.S. surveys showed that the war effort was overwhelmingly supported by all but the most hardened American despisers of their own country’s military.

As I have seen others use broad language to condemn any violent response to the 9/11 attacks, I wonder what such anti-violence absolutists would say about the passengers of United Flight 93 who bravely rose up against their hijackers. Should they have refrained from fighting to take back the plane (an inherently violent action) and just let the terrorists proceed to their target, killing even more people?

Kemper one-sidedly portrays the U.S./NATO effort in Afghanistan as an unmitigated disaster, which allegedly “brought so much more suffering and so much more death to Afghanistan.” Does he really believe that 20 years of Taliban rule would have meant less suffering for Afghanistan?

What of all of the women who were allowed to receive education and hold professional positions over the last two decades? What of all the people who were not tortured or raped by the Taliban? What of Afghanistan no longer serving as a safe haven for international terrorists plotting successful mass murders on U.S. soil? It is especially striking that the recent leader of global missions for a Christian denomination makes no mention of the at least limited freedom that underground Afghan Christians reportedly had to exist, and how the withdrawal of U.S. troops now threatens these brothers and sisters with the risk of genocide.

I know some argue that the alleged good of the U.S. withdrawal outweighs all of the good things noted in the previous paragraph. (And it should be acknowledged that while American opinion today has its divides, this U.S. retreat was brought about by the top leaders of both political parties, with apparent support from the bulk of their respective bases.) But clearly these particular results of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan over the last 20 years were very good things.

It is especially galling how Kemper actually claims that, in apparent allusion to the bloodshed and terror of the Taliban’s new takeover, “these days, we are witnessing the final failure of” the U.S. decisions to send its military to Afghanistan and to spend as much money as it did there.


A resolution submitted to the next UMC General Conference (see pages 133/717 – 137/721), which Kemper submitted on behalf of the GBGM board of directors, calls for “the prompt and complete withdrawal of US/NATO forces” from Afghanistan.

While you would never know it from some pro-withdrawal propaganda, the fact is that U.S. military presence in Afghanistan had already become rather small. The Taliban’s rapid takeover of the country came as we pulled out the measly few thousand troops who remained, which was far less than one percent of all U.S. military personnel and less than America has stationed in any of several other countries.

In any case, the withdrawal of even a skeleton crew of U.S. military support for its allies in the democratically elected Afghan government met the standard of the GBGM’s demand for not just a withdrawal of U.S. forces, but a complete withdrawal. And by all accounts, the rapid U.S. withdrawal also met the GBGM call for it to be “prompt.”

But Mr. Kemper cannot have it both ways. If he is going to unqualifiedly condemn the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and call for its “prompt and complete withdrawal,” and then he gets exactly that, he does not get to suddenly turn around and blame the (rather predictable) results on those who on the contrary urged the continuance of at least a minimal U.S./NATO military presence.

The GBGM’s Afghanistan resolution also has several embarrassing inaccuracies, including grossly exaggerating the number of foreign troops in the country at the time GBGM directors approved the resolution, recycling outdated data, and even claiming that NATO stands for the “North American Treaty Organization” rather than its actual identity as the 30 countries of the “North Atlantic Treaty Organization.” This GBGM resolution is an updated version of a resolution first issued by the national headquarters of United Methodist Women (UMW), with the same error about what NATO stands for, which was passed overwhelmingly in its legislative committee at the 2012 General Conference and rushed onto a consent calendar to become the official position of our denomination.

Apparently, of all the GBGM and UMW staffers and directors who helped pass, process, and promote this prophetic United Methodist resolution over the years, none thought took the time to do some very basic fact-checking. Or perhaps such officials are actually ignorant of such basic facts as what NATO stands for. Or perhaps both.

Either way, with such poorly prepared foundations, such United Methodist resolutions do not deserve to be treated seriously, no matter how “prophetic” the authors may claim to be.

And consistent with the biases of United Methodist bureaucracies who cannot fathom the U.S. military being anything other than a force for evil, in its zeal to be prophetic the one-sided UMW/GBGM resolution, like Kemper’s recent reflection, studiously avoids intellectually honest acknowledgment of any of the positive things the U.S. military has done in Afghanistan. The resolution even goes out of its way to positively cite far left Barbara Lee (D—Berkeley, California) as the only U.S. Member of Congress to initially vote against the U.S. military campaign to bring justice to the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. 

All of this illustrates so much of what is wrong with how the UMC has botched its “social witness” and why we must do better in the Next Methodism.

Even as relatively pragmatic and reasonable a leader as Kemper shows the influence of the left-wing ideological chamber that dominates the UMC’s top-heavy denominational bureaucracy, and the unexamined biases and moral blind spots that naturally flourish in such cultures.

The 9/11 anniversary statement by Kemper’s successor, Roland Fernandes, is in many ways a welcome contrast to Kemper’s own reflection. Yes, part of me wishes that Fernandes had said more to offer a counterpoint to the perspectives I critique above. But in these divided times, it is no small thing that Fernandes was able to speak in a pastoral, compassionate way, avoiding politics and divisiveness in any direction, focusing on the pain felt and our denomination’s humanitarian relief work in Afghanistan.

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the United Methodist Council of Bishops reportedly had its own internal debate about how much they wanted their joint statement to be “pastoral” vs. making a “prophetic” denunciation of the U.S. side of the al-Qaeda/Taliban-initiated war. 

Liberal United Methodist clergy, encouraged by liberal seminaries, love to claim the role of “speaking prophetically.” This can create unhealthy pressures to hastily proclaim strong, public, forceful positions on every major public-policy and geopolitical issue.

But as the debacle of the UMW/GBGM Afghanistan resolution illustrates, church leaders often simply lack the expertise to know what they are talking about. The response of Fernandes shows that it is often better for church leaders to stay silent than to pontificate in areas where they are not prepared to be constructive or might reflect poorly on the denomination they represent.

On the other hand, it is irresponsible for church leaders to broadly condemn how political leaders respond to particular challenges without pointing to any serious alternative. Vague talk of peace and “stand[ing] up for a non-violent response” sounds nice. But such platitudes do not point toward any useful plans of action.

I pray that the Global Methodist Church will consciously learn from the UMC’s mistakes to find better ways of both promoting social implications of our faith to society and in discipling our members to think in careful, biblical, nuanced ways about how our faith may apply to matters of public policy and international relations.

While the leaders of the liberal post-separation UMC (psUMC) will continue to have their Berkeley Biases, we must be conscious to avoid fostering our own groupthink blind spots. We certainly do not need to follow the UMC’s habits of hastily adopting lengthy resolutions on every conceivable issue, or pressuring people to “trust our leaders” by rubber-stamping such resolutions with neither the time nor expectation that those voting to adopt a resolution have actually read it.

Our new denomination can speak more powerfully when we do so in more careful, limited, informed, balanced, and non-partisan ways.

  1. Comment by Bob on September 16, 2021 at 10:34 am

    Excellent, unfunny insights. The fact one has a relationship with the One who made the stars does not qualify that person to teach astronomy at Princeton. Too often senior church authorities stride into areas where they lack intellectual heft and lead with their chins, surprised they are promptly punched out by informed adults. They then promptly claim they share a prophet’s martyrdom for speaking truth to power, forgetting that martyrdom also “can be a way to achieve fame without ability.”

  2. Comment by David S. on September 16, 2021 at 11:19 am

    Unfortunately, the social witness arms of most mainline denominations sound nothing more than clanging gongs and cymbals on name your issue. They seem more about parroting the opinions of the left-to-far left, and therefore being man pleasers than anything else, even as they decry when the more theologically conservative denominations do the same. I seem to recall that particularly in the Old Testament, the prophets gave harsh, critical words to both kings who genuinely worship God, and kings who did not.

    I am reminded of a comment that my pastor said once, that I should take too much stock in these statements because the intended audience ignores them. Perhaps, it is because these statements have ceased to bear any weight with anybody, because all one needs to do is turn on CNN and MSNBC to hear the same things. If these false prophets were willing to be a true prophetic voice, then they would do as the author says and perhaps people would listen. The lunacy of their statements and who their true father seems to be is revealed in that each time I hear a “prophetic” statement, I am reminded the incident involving Kings Ahab and Jehoshaphat in I Kings 22, and the latter part of Romans 1, in that God has clearly given them over to their sins in that by professing themselves to be wise, they have become fools.

  3. Comment by Kristy on September 20, 2021 at 1:39 pm

    You note that many who make statements similar to Kemper’s fail to offer a viable alternative to the course of action they condemn, or even attempt to do so. I’ve asked many friends who would agree with Kemper what they would have done instead, and have received a nearly universal response along the lines of, “I’m not a political scientist, but we should have done something different.” While I am willing to hear differing opinions from what was the overwhelming sentiment in 2001, I wish they would be backed up by some solid alternative. Perhaps Kemper, if he reads this, would be willing to offer such a suggestion? If no such suggestion exists, it is far too easy to criticize decisions with the hindsight of this past month’s events, and far too easy to dismiss the good that you note was accomplished during our time in Afghanistan.

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