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The Story of a United Methodist President and His Bishops and an "Incompatible" Lesbian Minister

by Rev. WILLIAM E. ALBERTS

Last December, Rev. Irene Elizabeth Stroud was defrocked for disclosing she was living in a committed and loving lesbian relationship. She was found guilty of violating United Methodism’s belief that, “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible [italics added] with Christian teaching. Therefore, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” (The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2004, p.197) In April, a Northeast Jurisdictional Conference Committee on Appeals overturned the verdict against Stroud, ruling that church law had been violated in the earlier decision by those who refused to look at Methodism’s whole tradition and also denied Stroud due process. The ruling is expected to be appealed to the Judicial Council, Methodism’s highest court.

On March 19, 2003, President George W. Bush, also a United Methodist, launched a falsely based, unnecessary, costly, pre-emptive war against defenseless and non-threatening Iraq. His action-and that of Vice President Dick Cheney, also a United Methodist-violated Methodism’s longtime belief on “War and Peace-We believe war is incompatible [italics added] with the teachings and example of Christ. . . . We insist that the first moral duty of all nations is to resolve by peaceful means every dispute that arises between or among them.” (Ibid, “Social Principles,” pp 123,124)

The long-standing belief on “War and Peace” is still contained only in United Methodism’s “Social Principles” and not considered binding-making it difficult to bring a formal charge against President Bush on that basis. However, the statement on homosexuality has been moved to the legal section of the denomination’s Book of Discipline and is considered binding. Says United Methodist minister Rev. William “Scott” Campbell, “Isn’t it amazing that we consider homosexuality more of a threat to the human family than war?” (personal communication) Amazing also is one president being impeached for lying about sexual misconduct with an individual, while another president remains at large after “fixing” intelligence to justify the rape of a country. (“The secret Downing Street memo,” by David Manning, From: Matthew Rycroft, The Sunday Times-Britain, May 1, 2005)

United Methodist bishop Rev. Peter D. Weaver, who brought the “chargeable offense” against Rev. Stroud, is the same bishop who, on May 3, 2005, led a delegation of five United Methodist bishops in a “pastoral visit” to President Bush at the White House. The bishops did not present Bush with any “chargeable offense.” Rather, the United Methodist News Service reported that they “presented Bush, a fellow United Methodist, with a Bible signed by the Council of Bishops, and they shared a moment of prayer with him. . . . ‘He was eager to have prayer,’ [Bishop John] Schol said of Bush. ‘We joined hands in a circle and prayed together.'” (“United Methodist bishops meet with president, open door to future,” by Tim Tanton, May 3, 2005)

The United Methodist bishops’ “pastoral visit” also included them telling “the president they are praying for him, that they share his commitment to building a better world, and that they are committed to finding ways to work together on common concerns, said Bishop Peter Weaver president of the council.” (Ibid) Afterward, Weaver stated that the bishops “wanted to continue building on a relationship with the White House that would be productive with the ‘fruits of human justice, peace and hope.'” Weaver also reported that Bush “was interested in things we were doing in the United Methodist Church. At one point, he said, ‘I’m proud to be a Methodist.'” (Ibid)

What compatibility! United Methodist bishops making a “pastoral visit” on fellow Methodist President Bush-with their clerical collars in their hands, “prayer” on their lips and “pride” in their hearts. Assuming a posture not a position-in which prayer can be another way of folding one’s hands and doing nothing, while giving the appearance of “commitment.” It is the politics of religion that keeps religion out of politics-out of risky human rights issues involving speaking truth to power.

It is not believed to be about the “fruits of human justice, peace and hope,” but about being “proud to be a Methodist.” When Bishop Weaver assumed leadership of United Methodism’s Boston Area last year, a Boston Globe profile of him began with him “proudly cit[ing]” a Gallup poll, that found “George W. Bush and US Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton were the most admired man and woman in America last year. Both Methodists [italics added], they talk about how their religious faith molds their lives and politics. . . . That faith,” Weaver said, “can put people ‘in touch with the presence of God through Jesus Christ, which in my own personal experience is transforming.'” (Oct. 9, 2004)

Around the time Bishop Weaver was being quoted, in October, President Bush’s “testimony of faith”–“Freedom is God’s gift to every man and woman in the world”–was set to “transform” Fallujah into rubble. Bush’s “testimony of faith” was preparing to put the residents of Fallujah-woman and children and other civilians-not in “touch with the presence of God through Jesus Christ,” but in touch with the presence of death through American bombs and missiles and napalm-a violation of Geneva Conventions and United Methodist belief: “We support treaty efforts to ban the development, trade, and use of weapons that are inhumane, are excessively injurious, and have indiscriminate effects.” (The General Conference Resolution 318, “The United Methodist Church and Peace”)

President Bush’s policies appear to be “incompatible” with other United Methodist beliefs:

-“The United Methodist Church categorically opposes interventions by more powerful nations against weaker ones.” (“What The United Methodist Church says on War and Peace with Iraq,” General Board of Global Ministries, 2000 General Conference Resolution 277, “Support for Self-Determination and Nonintervention”)

– “We oppose clandestine operations such as political assassinations; political and military coups . . . and propaganda aimed at destabilizing other governments.” (Ibid)

– “We as United Methodist Christians: urge the President of the United States to repudiate violence and killing and victimizing of innocent people; [we] oppose the use of indiscriminate military force to combat terrorism, especially where the use of such force results in casualties among noncombatant citizens.” (General Conference Resolution 317, “Terrorism”)

– “We endorse the United Nations and its related bodies and the International Court of Justice as the best instruments now in existence to achieve a world of justice and law.” “Social Principles” on “Justice and Law,” The Book of Discipline, p. 124)

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has condemned the Bush administration’s pre-emptive war against Iraq as “illegal,” a violation of international law because it lacks UN Security Council approval. Annan said about President Bush’s “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” “Those who seek to bestow legitimacy must themselves embody it, and those who invoke international law must themselves submit to it.” (The New York Times, Sept. 22, 2004). No wonder Bush wants to “reform” the United Nations, and has chosen a reportedly “arrogant,” “unilaterally”-acting and “bullying . . . poster child” John Bolton as his nominee for ambassador to the UN. (The New York Times, May 13, 2005)

President Bush’s “illegal” pre-emptive war against Iraq and Saddam Hussein’s assumed weapons of mass destruction effectively stopped UN weapons inspectors from finding out that there were no such weapons-and thus no need for pre-emptive war.

Saddam Hussein’s alleged ties to 9/11, a further pretext for war, also proved to be another administration lie. Thus Bush then wrapped himself all the more tightly in the lofty God-inspired motive of removing a brutal dictator from power and bringing “freedom” to the oppressed Iraqi people.

History tells a different story. The United States aided and abetted Saddam Hussein during his brutal regime. Journalist Robert Fisk makes this point in reporting that, at the very time (1988-89) Hussein was destroying “the people of Halabja with gas, along with tens of thousands of other Kurds. . . President Bush senior provided him with US government subsidies to buy American farm products,” including “the notorious ‘dual-use’ material that could be used for chemical and biological weapons.” (The Independent, Oct. 9, 2002)

A front-page New York Times story disclosed that during the 1981-88 Iraqi-Iranian war, U.S. intelligence agencies provided Iraq with satellite photographs of Iranian forces, aware that Iraqi commanders would use chemical weapons in the decisive battles of the war. The story said, “The United States decided it was imperative that Iran be thwarted so it could not overrun the important oil-producing states in the Persian Gulf.” (Aug. 18, 2002)

Our government’s complicity in Saddam Hussein’s brutal rule is also detailed by correspondent Kevin McKiernan in a Boston Globe guest column. McKiernan’s examples include “[President] Reagan’s handwritten letter to Saddam Hussein soliciting better relations; multiple visits by special White House envoy Donald Rumsfeld, who also represented the Bechtel corporate efforts to build an oil pipeline across Iraq;” and “the administration’s decision to remove the regime of Saddam Hussein-who was known in those days as the ‘Butcher of Baghdad’-from the list of sponsors of terror.” (Feb. 9, 2005)

The United States invaded Iraq to remove a brutal dictator from power? The US- controlled UN economic sanctions against Iraq, that contributed to the deaths of some 500,000 children under the age of 5 between 1991 and 1998, also reveals another kind of brutality. And if over 100,000 dead Iraqi civilians, mostly women and children, could speak, surely what they might say would be “incompatible” with President Bush’s pre-emptive policy-and prayers.

A president “eager for prayer” who said, two weeks before launching his war of choice, “I pray daily. I pray for guidance and wisdom and strength. . . . I pray for peace. I pray for peace.” ( The New York Times, Mar. 7, 2003). The president need not worry. The Iraqi civilians ground under by his “march of democracy” will not be heard; for they are not counted by the Pentagon. Only “insurgents.”

Iraq’s election is not about President Bush’s “larger vision of bringing democracy to the Arab world” (The Boston Globe, Jan. 31, 2005). It is about US global domination. “Operation Iraqi Freedom” means creating a puppet regime to exploit Iraq’s vast oil resources, and use its strategic location to militarily fan “the untamed fire of freedom [to] the darkest corners of the world” (“President Bush’s Inaugural Address,” The New York Times, Jan. 21, 2005). And then there is Vice President Cheney: he was CEO of

Halliburton, which was recently “awarded $72 million in bonuses . . . for its logistics work in Iraq,” and which “has earned more than $7 billion under its 2001 [no-bid} logistics contract with the U.S. military.” (“Halliburton gets bonus for Iraq work,” by Sue Pleming, Reuters, May 10, 2005)

President Bush publicly boasted about a policy that is “incompatible” with United Methodist belief, namely the Church’s opposition to “political assassinations.” In his 2003 State of the Union Address, Bush flashed his “Dead or Alive” mentality: “All told, more than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries. Many others have met with a different fate.” And then he paused, gloating-like, and said, “Let’s put it this way-they are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies.” These words elicited “applause.”

Along with the extra-judicial assassinations, are the illegal detainment of terrorism suspects denied due process and the “rendition” of certain detainees to countries that specialize in torture to make prisoners talk. There are also the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guatanamo Bay prisons and Bagram detention center in Afghanistan, with their own revelations of torture, desecration and murder of Iraqi and other prisoners by U.S. military personnel.

It is little wonder that Newsweek’s story of a Koran being flushed down a toilet at the Guantanamo Bay prison, by U.S. personnel to distress inmates, led Muslims in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere to react with intense anger at America and engage in destructive rioting. Little wonder that, in response to former inmates’similar allegations of Koran desecration, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whiteman said, “There have thus far been no credible allegations of willful Koran desecration. . . . Al Qaeda training manuals emphasize the tactic of making false abuse allegations.” (The Boston Globe, May 17, 2005) Little wonder that the Bush administration put tremendous pressure on Newsweek to apologize and retract the story. And it was no wonder at all to read The Guardian story: “Newsweek’s apology for its controversial Qur’an desecration story was greeted with scorn at home and in the US and across the Muslim world yesterday.” (“Newsweek apology fails to cool Qur’an anger,” by Declan Walsh in Islamabad, May 17, 2005)

The Bush administration is not about “bringing democracy to the Arab world,” but about desecrating the Arab world with US military bases, control of its resources and of puppet oppressive governments, and use of whatever weaponry needed to expand US political and corporate world domination. And the desecration also includes the deaths, disabling and dehumanizing of so many of America’s sons and daughters.

Enter Laura Bush, the president’s wife and “secret weapon.” The Bush administration seems to be using her to put a caring human face on brutal policies. Thus her recent “good will” tour to the Middle East. And her highly publicized comedy routine, in which she tells an early-to-bed president, “George, if you really want to end tyranny in the world, you’re going to have to stay up later.” (The Boston Globe, May 2, 2005) Ridding the world of tyranny? Or ruling the world with tyranny? Even the president’s wife appears to be a “weapon.”

President Bush’s behavior, and that of Vice President Cheney, seems to clearly be “incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ.” United Methodist leaders possessed that clarity before Bush initiated his administration’s “illegal,” unjust and widely condemned pre-emptive war against Iraq. In an October 4, 2002 letter to the entire 10 million United Methodists, endorsed by the Council of Bishops, then Council President Sharon A. Brown Christopher wrote, “A pre-emptive war by the United States against a nation like Iraq goes against the very grain of our understanding of the Gospel, our church’s teachings, and our conscience. Pre-emptive strike does not reflect restraint and does not allow for the adequate pursuit of peaceful means for resolving conflict.” (“Council of Bishops’ president joins call for restraint on Iraq” NewsDesk @UMCOM.ORG, 7 Oct. 2002).

On August 30, 2004, Jim Winkler, General Secretary of The United Methodist Church’s Board of Church and Society, issued this strong statement: “United Methodists have a particular duty [italics added] to speak out against an unprovoked attack. President Bush and Vice President Cheney are members of our denomination. Our silence now could be interpreted as tacit approval of war. . . . It is inconceivable that Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior and the Prince of Peace, would support this proposed attack.” (“Bush Urged to Turn Back From War,” Mark Harrison, contact person, General Board of Church and Society, The United Methodist Church, Aug. 30, 2002).

Even Bishop Weaver perceptively warned, ” ‘War will not end terror. It will simply seed terror. It will come back on the United States like a boomerang,’ he said, “and make U.S. personnel into recruiters for al Qaeda.” (“Eight United Methodist bishops, other leaders, speak against war with Iraq,” www.UMC.org).

Since President Bush and Vice President Cheney are United Methodists, it would seem that Methodists do have a “particular duty to speak out against an unprovoked attack.” Unfortunately, the above strong anti-war statements of United Methodist leaders did not appear to make their way very far into mainstream media during the run-up to the war.

Bishop Weaver and the other bishops who paid President Bush a “pastoral visit” seemed to be in awe of him. Their words appear to betray the feeling of being in the presence of the “Burning Bush.” Their closeness to “the seat of power” and pride in his “Methodist” affiliation seemed to have a corrupting influence. It was as if identifying with the president’s power helped to validate their own power.

Those United Methodist bishops may want to reconsider their words to President Bush, “that they share his commitment to building a better world.” Not only is such a commitment “incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ.” Bush’s understanding of “building a better world” [italics added] is “incompatible” with a majority of people in the world. A global poll conducted by the British Broadcasting Company found that “a majority of people [58% of 22,000] surveyed . . . think that the re-election of George W. Bush as US president has made the world more dangerous; and many view Americans negatively as well.” (The Boston Globe, Jan. 20, 2005).

The United Methodist leaders, and certain others, would seem to benefit from the words of Professor Arthur Hertzberg, who continues to ask, “Why didn’t the church speak out against Hitler?” In a New York Times guest column on “The Vatican’s Sin of Omission,” he writes, “What Cardinal Ratzinger did not do . . . was to question the orthodox Catholic position that though individual Catholics can err morally, the church and the pope cannot. Until the Vatican reconsiders that out-look,” Hertzberg says, “one of the Holocausts greatest wounds will continue to fester-namely that the major European institution that stood for morality looked away from genocide.” Hertzberg then concludes, “No amount of personal outreach toward the Jews and Judaism from the new pope will make the Jews forget that the institution of which he is the monarch has not come to terms with that history.” (May 14, 2005) The United Methodist Church’s bishops need to come to terms with their Methodist president’s history.

“Proud to be a Methodist.” Rev. Irene Elizabeth Stroud expressed a different kind of pride. She disclosed her lesbian identity and 31/2 year commitment with her partner because, “She was yearning to be truthful and honest and live out her integrity as both a Christian as well as a human being.” (Trial Transcript (“TR”) at 51). When the Methodist Committee on Investigation asked whether her relationship with “her female partner ‘is a complete physical one and whether or not you have or are engaged in genital sexual contact,'” Stroud replied, “Yes, that is part of who we are as a loving couple and as partners.” (Trial Court, Specification No.3)

Rev. Stroud’s pride in herself was communicated in a sermon to her congregation: “I know that by telling the truth about myself, I risk losing my credentials as an ordained United Methodist minister. And that would be a huge loss for me. But,” she continued, “I have realized that not telling the truth about myself has been holding me back in my faith.” (The New York Times, Dec. 3, 2004). Her pride in revealing and affirming her full humanity led her “to experience a deep feeling of peace.” (The New York Times, Dec. 3, 2004) Her pride is rooted in her integrity, in which being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” is compatible with her humanness and her Christian faith.

It would seem that United Methodism’s Trial Court’s guilty verdict is “incompatible with Christian teaching” and not Rev. Stroud. Jesus taught that love of God and one’s neighbor as oneself are the greatest commandments, and that “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22: 35-40). Jesus did not specify one’s neighbor’s sexual orientation.

Why, then, do United Methodists (and many other Christians) believe that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching?” Their Book of Discipline does not explain why, which may betray the homophobic foundation of this particular “Social Principle.” Most United Methodists who condemn homosexuality had nothing whatsoever to do with their own heterosexual orientation-just as most gay and lesbian persons are born and develop as they are. To put a moral stamp of “incompatibility” on an individual’s sexual orientation flies in the face of genetically predisposed sexual development and preference. Here a Christian doctrine of free will serves to dismiss and explain away belief-threatening empirical cause-and-effect understanding of human development and behavior. Certain “Social Principles” of The United Methodist Church are lacking in social science.

Many United Methodists and other Christians argue that the moral issue is protecting traditional marriage and “the preservation of the family.” That seems to be The Book of Discipline’s position: “We affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman.” And the paragraph ends, “We support laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.” (“Social Principles, C.Marriage,” p.99) The Discipline goes on to state, “Certain [italics added] basic rights and civil liberties are due all persons. We are committed to supporting those rights and liberties for homosexual persons.” (“Social Principles, H. Equal Rights Regardless of Sexual Orientation,” p. 107) The anti-democratic position of this “Social Principle” appears to be its reliance on a majority of voters to determine the “civil liberties” of gay persons and not on their wishes and constitutional rights.

The deeper ethical issue would seem to be the inclusion and honoring of all members of the family born in these traditional marriages. Nor is same-sex marriage an issue involving “civil society’s” right to be heard and to vote, but a minority’s full right to be seen: the “self-evident truth” of a minority’s constitutional and divinely “endowed right” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Many evangelical Christians are not just pro-life but pro-heterosexual life. Or pro-heterosexual-American life. Or pro-heterosexual-white-American life.

Nor is the issue of homosexuality about Christian theology regarding “loving the sinner and hating the sin”-as if who one is can be separated from what one does. The issue is the need for introspection: overcoming culturally ingrained unconscious homophobic fear that harms another person’s identity, development and fulfillment as a human being. “Loving the sinner and hating the sin” are actually code words used to inflict spiritual violence on gay and lesbian persons with a “straight” face.

What would certain Christians do without code words to cover their anti-democratic tendencies. United Methodism’s Book of Discipline offers some classic code words: “Homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth. All persons need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment [italics added], as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self.” And without a but, the bottom line comes next: “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” (“Social Principles, C. Human Sexuality,” p. 101)

“All persons need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment?” What about the human fulfillment of Rev. Irene Stroud?-and of so many other United Methodists hiding behind pulpits and in pews for fear their full humanness will be found out and judged “incompatible” with the church they love?

United Methodist positions on homosexuality are actually “incompatible” with each other. “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be . . . ordained ministers.” (The Book of Discipline, p. 197) However, an earlier section in The Book of Discipline seems to state the opposite: “We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons” [italics added] (p.101) But later there is another mixed message:

“Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.” (p. 241)

Code words are the way by which leaders in religion and government camouflage the contradiction between what they profess and what they practice. Code words provide an important service for all concerned: they allow people to rationalize the contradictions between belief and practice-and thereby avoid dealing with the issues that allow the contradictions to exist and continue. Code words may be called forked tongue theology.

Everyone who is born shows up as a human being-everyone! To classify anyone as “incompatible,” or to divide people into rigid classifications of “good” and “evil,” violates the very essence of love, which nourishes and renews every life-and is believed to sustain the universe itself. Whether gay or straight, American or Arab, life is about loving one’s neighbor as oneself. The more one is in touch with and accepting of oneself, the better prepared one is to experience and accept other persons as themselves-and to truly join in “building a better world.”

Rev. WILLIAM E. ALBERTS, Ph.D. is a hospital chaplain. Both a Unitarian Universalist and a United Methodist minister, he has written research reports, essays and articles on racism, war, politics and religion. He can be reached at william.alberts@bmc.org.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister. His new book, The Counterpunching Minister (who couldn’t be “preyed” away) is now published and available on Amazon.com. The book’s Foreword, Drawing the Line, is written by Counterpunch editor, Jeffrey St. Clair. Alberts is also author of A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, which “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review in the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. His e-mail address is wm.alberts@gmail.com.

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