June 20, 2018
The United Methodist Church doesn’t often hit the headlines but it has after more than 600 of my fellow members filed charges against Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a professing member, for breaking church law with his implementation of the new “zero tolerance” policy on immigration.
The formal complaint claims that Sessions has repeatedly violated the Book of Discipline, the text that governs our life together as United Methodists. It’s strong stuff. He is accused of child abuse, for his separation of children from their parents at the US border, immorality, racial discrimination, and dissemination of doctrines contrary to the those of the UMC.
So what happens next? Well, Sessions’ pastor, either of the church he attends in Virginia or of his home church in Alabama, must address the charges with him. It is up to the pastor to lead the Attorney General to a ‘just resolution’ of the situation. The Book of Discipline defines that as, “one that focuses on repairing any harm to people and communities, achieving real accountability by making things right in so far as possible and bringing healing to all parties.”
However, to reach such a resolution, Sessions would have to agree with the charges filed against him. And that’s not going to happen. If he refuses to cooperate with the complaint process, his case could be taken to church trial. Many would delight at the prospect of the Attorney General in the dock, forced to account for his “misuse of Romans 13” (part of the formal complaint). But there is no reason to believe that will happen either. The truth is that racist political policies are not what the UMC has church trials over.
In the last thirty years, the church trial has mostly been used to punish and expel clergy who perform same-sex weddings or ordinations. That too is in violation of the Book of Discipline. In those cases, which are legion, charges are brought that inevitably lead to anything but a just resolution for the clergyperson involved, who is forced to surrender their ministerial credentials and find a new vocation.
It is deemed a far more serious offence in the church to marry two LGBTQIA people who love one another than it is to destroy the lives of children as part of a white supremacist administration that sows hatred and division.
The complaint brought against Attorney General Sessions, if taken seriously, could at the least start an important discussion about the denomination’s relationship to American political power. Jeff Sessions is just one of several politicians who are Methodists. They include Hillary Clinton, President George W. Bush and Laura Bush, who has condemned the child separation policy as immoral and cruel, (but perhaps not fully-reckoned with her husband’s role in the creation of Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE in the first place), and sacked FBI director, James Comey.
Some readers might worry that if the church pursues charges against Sessions, then what would keep other Methodists from bringing a formal complaint against any of these political figures that they disagree with? The whole enterprise might just become another battleground in our fractured political terrain.
But how about we Methodists have an honest conversation about our church’s influence on the last thirty years of domestic and foreign policy? What would it look like to find a “just resolution” between our denomination and the people of Ferguson, Charlottesville, Iraq, Syria, Libya, or Honduras?
Perhaps we would find that while we may claim that Sessions’ actions are antithetical to our theological commitments, nothing about our church’s practice has prevented members of our denomination from invading other countries, authorizing the use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques, or creating systems of mass surveillance.
The Book of Discipline’s language on accountability calls all United Methodists to “be a witness for Christ in the world, a light and leaven in society, and a reconciler in a culture of conflict.” We are to “exemplify the Christ of hope.”
Such a call to honest discussion wouldn’t turn our process into a political tool, designed to expel those with whom we disagree. It would make our church look more like the Kingdom of God. It would help us to work toward the grandest of Wesleyan spiritual goals, being made perfect in love. It might bring a just resolution to all our needless conflict.
Rev. Isaac Collins is the Lead Pastor of Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church, a reconciling congregation in Charlottesville, Virginia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org