Notes From The Balcony

Progressive Reflections on Post-Modern Living in a Multifaith Age

Shall we gather at the DC mall?

Posted by John Montgomery on October 3, 2010

I’ve been singing, “shall we gather at the river” all weekend long. Words like the Potomac or mall or memorial or DC don’t quite fit the rhythm, but I am still working on it. For the last week this question has been the subject of intensely active conversation by social networkers on United Methodist Communication’s Facebook page (The United Methodist Church). It is a conversation that is a bit bizzare.  If one was checking that page to learn about World Communion Sunday, one would be quite surprised by what was there to be found.

This facebook discussion had been occasioned mainly by the NYT article that mentioned (wrongly) that GBCS was a sponsor of the upcoming  One Nation Working Together march that was held yesterday, Saturday, October 2, 2010.

Much of the passionate, but confused rhetoric in the comments came because the NYT article failed to make a distinction between endorsing an event, i.e. inviting one’s associates to participate and sponsoring an event, i.e. engaging in the planning and financing of the agenda. When one looks at the broad list of 400 or so endorsers, the presence of  socialist and communist groups (don’t leave out unions and gay groups) associated with the program catalyzed anger that blew the cover off the pot and rant after rant followed as it boiled over.  

The other part of the problem is that the NYT portrayed this march as a counter-demonstration to Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor gathering last month. As far as I can tell, the march was originally proposed before the Beck event was planned and it was to focus on the sort of DC standstill regarding progressive issues like employment and health care. 

I know we have tea-party Methodists, but in these conversations, their imitation of Glenn Beck is staggering. Since UMC tea-party activists can’t seem to make distinctions between anybody to the left of right wing, you can tell where the discussion went.

This is not to suggest that the original intent of the rally did not change. The opening talk by MSNBC’s Ed Schultz signaled with no ambiguity the event’s new face: in the end it became a rally to get out the votes for Democrats on November 2. NCAAP President Jealous’ statement with its denigration of Beck followers saying that “we” are the antidote to Beck and the tea-party did not tone down the offense.

Anticipating these developments, this past Friday as Jim Winkler announced that while GBGS stood by the rally’s original goals and concerns, partison statements made recently by the original sponsors signaled that the agenda had shifted and GBGS withdrew its endorsement.

In the end, Winkler’s statement was carefully written and I have come to believe exactly the decision that was needed. Finally, Saturday was what it was – four whole hours. Now it is over.

But for me, what also remains to be watched is the apparent deepening of the polarization of our public debate and its impact on conversation in our church. In his statement, Winkler noted the increasing lack of civil discourse within the United States.

Perhaps more troubling, discourse within The United Methodist Church has taken on a very un-Christ-like tone.  E-mails and phone calls made to the board by clergy and laity have been shocking in their vitriol.

Winkler’s off-hand report that clergy are participating is quite scary to me.

In fact, my immediate response was critical:

With all respect, this feels like GBCS has been bullied into this decision. While I know that some of those groups who were on the larger list are controversial and partisan, doesn’t that go with the territory. On the larger United Methodist Church page, progressive Christians like me have been subjected to vitriolic nonsense and I am now sure that these tea-party commentators are going to celebrate because they put the church leaders in their place. GBCS has pioneered in these matters. Let’s not lose our nerve now.

I need not share the bullying comments. You can imagine – the attack on social justice as the Marxist redistribution of wealth, the suggestion that people ought to read the Bible (something that I assume is already true), Spong-like heresy, can’t speak for the church as a whole, etc. If you really enjoy this stuff, it goes on for pages.

But, the more I have thought about it, I want to be careful and not challenge the integrity of the GBGS staff. They have seen this before and I take it that the timing had to do with more than submitting to pressure.

So should we gather at the river?

It seems to me that if I was going to stand on the Mall to witness against Beck and his followers, I would go to a qualitatively different event…like Jon Stewart’s Take Back Sanity. We didn’t need a pissing contest this weekend. The timing of this move did not stop the debate, but simply reset it and frankly sides just started talking past each other again. The question becomes not how we can yell louder, but what we might do to occasion the transformation of such defiant despair.

My next post will seek to address the question of why Jon Stewart’s satire might help. The answer is found in Kiergegaard and Sartre and a late night discussion in University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library back in the 80s with my M.Div. colleagues.

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One Response to “Shall we gather at the DC mall?”

  1. Paul Black said

    Well said…I continue to endorse the notion that people stake out their politics and then ask God to bless it, rather than staking out their faith position and ask their politics to align with it. The United Methodist Church is in a unique position and has the opportunity to model civil discourse in the public arena. Will we stand up and meet the challenge head on or will we shrink to the responsibility and then become part of the fire that generates heat but no light?

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