Clinging to Centrism: Broad Center Bell Curves, Incompatibilism, and Compatibilism

Broad center bell curveImage from Adam Hamilton’s “An Update on the Denomination,” March 29, 2019

The language of “centrist” United Methodists like Adam Hamilton that focuses on whether we are “incompatibilists” or “compatibilists,” in addition to being a nightmare to type with autocorrect on, is problematic on numerous levels. Hamilton defines these two terms in the following way:

– Incompatibilist: “I cannot be in a church where others disagree with me and are allowed to do something different than what I believe is right regarding same-sex marriage”

– Compatibilist: “I can be in a church where others disagree with me and are allowed to do something different than what I believe is right regarding same-sex marriage.” (From Adam Hamilton’s “An Update on the Denomination,” March 29, 2019)

Hamilton emphasizes that there are progressive incompatibilists, progressive compatibilists, traditional incompatibilists, and traditional compatibilists.

Problem 1 – With the language of the United Methodist Book of Discipline referring to the lives of persons who are LGBTQIA+ as being “incompatible with Christian teaching,” there is insensitive irony in using “incompatibilism” as the label for progressives who want to be in churches where all persons are fully affirmed and accepted and able to fully participate in the life and ministry of the church, including being married and ordained.

Problem 2 – The juxtaposition of “incompatibilist” with “compatibilist’ contains within it a linguistic bias against those who favor full inclusion and a fully welcoming and affirming church. With the definitions used above, they become portrayed as the persons who are not willing to agree to disagree, the ones who are unable to live with difference, while those who are willing to be in a church that continues to treat many of its members as unequal to their cisgender hetero members are portrayed as the ones who are willing to get along with other people.

Problem 3 – The definitions above leave out the important issue of ordination, which is key to a fully inclusive, welcoming, and affirming church.

Problem 4 – The focus of the language is biased towards order and stability (can’t we all just get along in our differences) rather than focusing on justice for our LGBTQIA+ siblings. It focuses more on getting along in a bigger tent even when people are treated unequally in different parts of the tent. It focuses more on maintaining peace within what Hamilton calls the “broad center” of United Methodism than it does on creating the tension needed to bring about justice for all of our LGBTQIA+ siblings. Another way of putting this – it focuses more on not losing members than it does on justice.

Problem 5 – The language creates the sense that the incompatibilists are the problem, while compatibilists are the solution. This by the way was the inherent flaw within the One Church Plan that was almost the sole focus of “centrist” United Methodists at the recent General Conference. It portrays progressives who want nothing less than a fully welcoming and affirming church as being on the fringe or as being too extreme and not willing to compromise, as trying to go too fast; which by the way is exactly what centrists used to say to Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement, over and over again.

Problem 6 – It perpetuates a discussion that continues to be more about our LGBTQIA+ siblings rather than focusing on being with them, fully hearing them, and being fully willing to be led by them in their quest for justice and equality in whatever the Methodist movement will become in the days ahead.

There is a tendency for persons who identify as “centrists” to believe that there is something normative, normal, and essentially correct about their thinking because it is shared by a “broad center” of the populace. What this fails to consider is the real possibility that the “broad center” may not be normative at all, but simply the ”hangers on” to the institutional artifacts of social, religious, and political inertia. Just because one’s view is in the center of the bell curve of public opinion does not make it right. It simply means it is popular, and what is popular is not always what is just.  There are times when the “broad center” stands in the way of significant change for justice for all rather than being its catalyst.

For decades “centrists” in the United Methodist Church have compromised on justice when it comes to our LGBTQIA+ siblings for the sake of church unity. Well, compromising justice did not and will not bring church unity, so for the love of justice and our LGBTQIA+ siblings, stop compromising at their expense right now. No more crumbs. All are welcome at the table.

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Imagine if a person were being investigated for possible crimes, and he had the power to pardon all of his associates who were being investigated with him.

Imagine if this same person being investigated could make public statements and write daily tweets about the investigation, about persons who are doing the investigation, and about his associates being investigated.

Imagine the person being investigated has a vast array of media organizations who are willing to coordinate with him to repeat his criticisms and argue for his criticisms on a daily basis.

Imagine if he could repeatedly and publicly float the idea of pardoning his associates.

Imagine if the person being investigated had the power to publicly berate and eventually fire the person who recused himself of leading the investigation process owing to a clear conflict of interest.

Imagine that the person being investigated fires this person and replaces him with a person who has been publicly critical of the investigation and who has vowed not to recuse himself even though he also has a glaring conflict of interest.

Imagine this new person overseeing the investigation process gets to be the first person to see a report of the investigation and is the one who is authorized to write the summary of its findings for the public to see.

Imagine the leader of the United States Senate, whose wife is serving in a cabinet level position appointed by the person being investigated, coordinating an effort to keep the public from seeing anything but a four page summary of the report of the investigation written by the person appointed by the person being investigated.

Imagine a world in which roughly 42% of the people in a society think all of this is a fair and appropriate process.

Imagine losing the integrity of a republic.

Welcome to America.

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Never Give In

The Mueller Report Process (I say process since we really know almost nothing about the actual report), confirms that the current president was surrounded by and assisted by a number of criminals in his 2016 Campaign. It apparently also confirms that there was a significant effort by Russia to influence the election, and although there were numerous contacts with members of the Trump Campaign and Russians, Mueller did not find enough evidence to show that there was a conspiracy. The process apparently also shows that in Mueller’s estimation the evidence does not exonerate the current president in the area of obstruction of justice.

In the Mueller investigation process, 34 persons have been indicted, 5 Trump associates have been convicted, and one (Stone) is awaiting trial. As with any crime family, it is often difficult to convict the leader of the crime family as they usually have others do the direct criminal activity for them.

I write all of this simply to note that the spin on the yet to be released Mueller Report (it really has not been released despite what people say – Have you seen it? Has Congress seen it?) is typical of the spin one would hear from the lawyers of a crime family boss, and that is because what we are dealing with is a crime family boss.

The existential danger of our current situation is that almost an entire political party and tens upon tens of millions of persons in our country are cheering the boss on and enabling, even encouraging, his activities. Now and in the days ahead, the current president and his associates will be calling for retribution and payback (punishing their enemies). Their calls are not about justice. They are about intimidation and revenge, which is also typical of organized crime families.

That we have come to a moment when the elected leader of the most powerful country on earth is such a person at a time when the world needed visionary leadership to address multiple and significant global challenges, represents the deepest of failures of our country, our institutions, and our people. It is unclear if our country, our institutions, and our people are up to the challenge of rectifying the damage we have done by electing such a person for such a time as this, but the well-being of the entire world depends on us continuing to try.

As Winston Churchill once said, “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never-in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense” (Winston Churchill, Speech at Harrow School, 1941).

For now not giving in means we must demand with all of our being that the actual Mueller Report be released to Congress and that the public be given the opportunity to see all portions of the report that do not compromise national security or the safety of persons. At the moment the Mueller Report has not yet been released. It has simply been captured by the Attorney General, who of course was appointed by the president for such a time as this.

With hard work and sacrifice, may goodness and justice prevail. Never give in, never, never, never, never.

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Fossil Fueled Fascism

There are at least four things about which our current president is quite consistent:

1. He is anti-immigrant and anti-refugee in relation to non-white immigrants.

2. He is anti-Islam, except in the case of Saudi Arabia and its allies.

3. He supports Christian Fundamentalism.

4. He supports the fossil fuel industry.

These four things contribute to Trump’s deep and abiding support among racists, xenophobes, white supremacists, Christian fundamentalists, industrial agriculture, the fossil fuel industry, and the petrochemical industry; and it is their interconnected interests that have brought Trump to power and which are working to keep him in power.

Racists, xenophobes, white supremacists, and Christian fundamentalists support Trump primarily for ideological reasons; but the industrial agriculture, the fossil fuel industry, and the petrochemical industry (all of which depend heavily on fossil fuel) support Trump primarily for financial reasons. Trump’s ideological base and the fossil fuel industry are mutually supportive of each other and mutually dependent on one another. The need each other to maintain power, and they know it. Trump knows it too.

Racists, xenophobes, and white supremacists tend to subordinate any concerns they might have for the environment to their more immediate concern of making America white again, so climate change is easily discarded as a concern of the opposing “globalist” team. From their nationalist perspective, they are easily convinced that increased fossil fuel development for the sake of energy independence is in both the national and nationalist interest.

Christian fundamentalists, few of whom are explicitly racist, xenophobic, or white supremacists, are nonetheless willing to overlook Trump’s popularity among these groups because Trump is supporting their most important agenda items of ending access to legal abortions and protecting what they understand to be their religious freedom – even if that freedom calls for discrimination of other persons in the public sphere. As long as Trump continues to appoint judges who will support their agenda, they will never stop supporting Trump, and given that a very large percentage of them literally believe the world will end in their lifetime, climate change is of little concern to them. They are much more focused on uncritical support for Israel (another point Trump knows how to work) less out of concern for the Jewish people who are living in Israel than as a means to bring about the Second Coming (yes, they really are working for this). This is why Trump moved the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

Ideological support for Trump is crucial to his success, but without the financial and organizational support of the fossil fuel related industries; Trump would likely not have come to power. Trump has rewarded these industries mightily with a massive rollback of environmental regulations and a withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. Trump’s problematic ties to Russia are not a problem at all to the fossil fuel industry as there are hundreds of billions of dollars to be made on drilling agreements with Russia. This is likely why Rex Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon, was appointed as Secretary of State. To Tillerson’s credit, he could not bring himself to continue working under Trump, but his initial appointment was a testament to how closely the fossil fuel industry is connected with this president.

Most fossil fuel executives are likely not racist, xenophobic, or white supremacists; and they are probably no more likely to be Christian fundamentalists than any other segment of society. Most fossil fuel executives probably don’t see themselves as being pro-Putin or even pro-Russia, but their desire to cash in on the trillions of dollars worth of fossil fuel yet to be exploited has led them into a mutually reinforcing and mutually beneficial relationship with Trump’s ideological base. The relationship is becoming stronger and more inextricable to the point that, whether consciously or not, the fossil fuel industry is supporting dangerous right-wing nationalist ideologies around the world. The existential danger we are currently facing is that this collaboration of convenience to further ideological and financial interests seems to be leading us down a pernicious path to fossil fueled fascism with dire consequences for people and the planet.

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Clinging to Purity

Religions become divisive and dangerous when they focus on purity more than justice. The codes and standards of purity are more often than not simply the cultural norms of a particular time and place, whereas the call for justice for the community of all creation is timeless and applies to all.

Reason and experience have shown us that most of the purity practices of the past were based on cultural norms rather than on natural or divine law. There are reasons we do not believe that women who are menstruating or those who come into contact with them, men who are uncircumcised, people who have leprosy or any other illness, persons with different dietary practices, and persons who come into contact with certain animals are impure. We recognize today that it would be unjust to treat persons in any of these categories as any less pure than any other persons. We have grown in our understanding.

Reason and experience have also led us to understand that our views and beliefs about sexual orientation and gender identity are also based on cultural norms. Many have come to realize that persons who are LGBTQIA+ simply are who they are, and their sexual orientation and gender identities do not cause harm and are therefore not sinful or impure, yet traditionalists within Christianity continue to treat persons with different sexual orientations and gender identities as being somehow impure or sinful and therefore not worthy of full participation within the life of the church.

For some reason Christian traditionalists are rigid in holding to scriptural passages that seem to condemn non-hetero sexual orientations, yet they easily let go of the purity codes found in many of the same books of the Bible they use to enforce cisgender hetero identity.

We would all do well to ask ourselves why it is that some norms are seen as bound to a particular time and place while others are given more permanent status by traditionalist Christians. Might it be that these decisions are based more on our proclivities and prejudices than upon an understanding that everything that is in the Bible is valid at all times and in all places? If traditionalists truly believed that all or even most of the Bible applies to all times and all places, then their churches and their members would look radically different than are today.

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Giving Up the Discriminatory Clauses in the United Methodist Book of Discipline


For Lent I am going to continue giving up the discriminatory clauses in the United Methodist Book of Discipline that judge and marginalize my siblings who are LGBTQIA+. During Lent, as I have before Lent and as I will after Lent, I am going to live and love and be in ministry as if those discriminatory clauses do not exist. I will not treat my LGBTQIA+ siblings any differently on any matter than I do my cisgender hetero siblings. We are all family, we are all in community, we are all beloved children of God, we are all of sacred worth, we all deserve to be married by our ministers within our church communities and within our church buildings, and we all deserve not to be barred from full participation in the life and ministry of our churches simply owing to our sexual orientation or gender identity.

During Lent and beyond, I affirm openly that we are all sinners, but that has nothing to do with our sexual orientations or gender identities. Our sin has everything to do with our willingness to harm others. The discriminatory clauses in the United Methodist Book of Discipline harm others who do no harm. The discriminatory clauses in the United Methodist Book of Discipline are therefore the product of human sin. The discriminatory clauses in the United Methodist Book of Discipline replicate the sin of Sodom, the sin of lack of hospitality in community. The discriminatory clauses in the United Methodist Book of Discipline were born out of fear and are often expressed through hate. The discriminatory clauses in the United Methodist Book of Discipline do not represent the way of love, grace, and justice in our world. The discriminatory clauses in the United Methodist Book of Discipline have been given the status of law, but in their injustice they are no laws at all.

During Lent and after Lent, I will do penance for any time I may have knowingly or unknowingly treated people differently because of my fear of the consequences of living fully into a renunciation and rejection of these discriminatory clauses. During Lent and after Lent, I will repent from any vestiges of sinful adherence to these discriminatory clauses in the United Methodist Book of Discipline. During Lent and beyond, I will reaffirm my Wesleyan and Christian commitment to do no harm, and I will reaffirm my baptismal vows to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves – even when, especially when, they present themselves in the pronouncements, policies, and practices of my own church.

The United Methodist Church’s fetish for exclusion has distracted us from recognizing that the whole creation is groaning in travail. In a world of injustice, poverty, war and violence, destruction of creation, and climate change that is hurling us towards an unlivable climate; we do not have time to be bound by discriminatory proclamations and practices that perpetuate fear, injustice, despair, and division in a world that so desperately needs love, justice, hope, and community.

If my rejection of the sinful discriminatory clauses of the United Methodist Book of Discipline prompts my denomination to reject me and cast me out from ordained ministry within the walls of the United Methodist Church, so be it. I would rather be excluded for including than be included for excluding, and as John Wesley affirmed when the church of his time worked to put constraints on his ministry, the world is our parish anyway.

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The Way Backward

My interaction with traditionalists in what has been known until now as the United Methodist Church is that they will not stop at enforcing a ban on same gender weddings and on the ordination of persons who are what they refer to as “self-avowed homosexuals.” This has always been about gaining a foothold to reverse what is perceived by traditionalists as the progressive agenda of the United Methodist Church.

Most traditionalists do not want any persons who are LGBTQIA+ working in any capacity in their churches, so don’t be surprised to see that coming down the pike in the future.

At some point, whether unrepentant “self-avowed homosexuals” can be baptized or become members of Traditionalist Methodist churches will be a topic of debate.

Eventually, whether unrepentant “self-avowed homosexuals” should even be allowed in the church buildings will be discussed in earnest.

The Traditionalist Methodist Church probably won’t go after women’s ordination, but a Traditionalist Methodist Church will be much more patriarchal in language and practice, and don’t be surprised by much more emphasis on “complementarian” views of women being advanced in the Traditionalist Methodist Church, with women taking on less equal but “complementary” roles in the church and in Traditionalist Methodist families.

It won’t be long before the Traditionalist Methodist Church begins to enforce other “orthodox” dogma and practices based on their narrow interpretation of scriptures.

Traditionalist Methodist seminary professors will have to sign statements pledging adherence to “orthodox” theology and find themselves censured, silenced, and without employment if they stray too far from the prescribed doctrinal teachings.

Traditionalist Methodist ministers will sign loyalty oaths to the Traditionalist Methodist Book of Discipline and face harsh penalties for breaking any of the rules.

“Right” belief, “right” practice, and “right” behavior will all be enforced by the Traditionalist Methodist Church for the “people’s own good” and the “good of the Church.” It will all be done “in love.”

The circle of harm will be widened by all of this as the circle of care is increasingly diminished. This is not just wild speculation. One only need look at traditionalist takeovers of other denominations and religious traditions in and outside of Christianity to see where this is heading – backward – and it will not be great.

And what will happen to what the traditionalists call the “progressive agenda” of what has been known until now as the United Methodist Church? Well, radical inclusion, participation of all persons as equal beings of sacred worth, freedom of thought and conscience, social justice for all people, and responsible care for the community of all creation will have to find new and different incarnations in the world because that will no longer be the agenda of the Traditionalist Methodist Church.

The good news is that the Traditionalist Methodist Church will likely not last that long as is most often the case when the circle is drawn to be more narrow rather than more wide. There is a way forward for the community of all creation, but that way is not in the Traditionalist Methodist Church.

Perhaps there may come a day when some who favored or even voted for the Traditionalist Plan will look back on this past week and ask the question “What have we done?” They will be welcome to join the new way forward towards Beloved Community, and they won’t even have to sign anything.

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