Perhaps the reason “Freedom” is so frightening is because it threatens the existing order with pandemonium.
United Methodists are at it again. We are in the news. This time it is about the right to choose. New York Area Bishop Martin D. McLee says he had no choice but to “refer the matter to the equivalent of a prosecuting lawyer for the church, who will decide whether to hold a trial.” (NYTimes – “Caught in Methodism’s Split Over Same-Sex Marriage“. May 5, 2013.) The “matter” he is referring to involves the Rev. Dr. Thomas W. Ogletre. Dr. Ogletree is a retired ordained UM clergyman who was Dean of Yale Divinity School and currently emeritus professor of theological ethics. Ogletree officiated at the wedding of his son, Thomas, to Nicholas. The wedding of the two men occurred in October, 2012. Some UM clergy caught wind of this and reported it to their bishop, it being a violation of the current UM Book of Discipline. This left the bishop with”no choice”. “If everyone can pick and choose the laws that they don’t particularly like,” said Bishop McLee, “and choose to violate them, then you have a situation of pandemonium.”
Is it true that, regardless of Bishop McLee’s personal feelings or convictions, he was put in a position where he “had no choice”? Dr. Ogletree has a different perspective. “Sometimes, when what is officially the law is wrong, you try to get the law changed,” Dr. Ogletree said. “But if you can’t, you break it.”
Of the two perspectives presented in this case – the bishop, and the ethicist – which is the one more reminiscent of Jesus’ approach to life? Jesus exercised the right to break a law when, regardless of how beneficial the authorities might think it was, it violated the rights or dignity of an individual. The unwillingness to “break the law” is what gives tyrants their power, whether they function in a theological, corporate or political setting. But more frightening to me than “unwillingness” is “inevitability” – when a thing is going to happen because there are simply no other options. Ethics is not like gravity. We do have ethical choices. Following Jesus is not like getting into a roller coaster and committing one’s self to wherever the track leads. Religion in its organized incarnation has a way of shaping us, putting us into a mold, and robbing us of the potential for having a personal relationship with God. “Organized” is what takes the “pandemonium” out of spirituality; true. It can also suck the energy out of what has the potential to provide abundant life.
I know I am a sinner. I know I harbor prejudices. But if I am going to “turn someone in”, or if I have the power to forestall or initiate processes that bring people to trial, let it be that I exercise that power freely. What frightens me about this situation is the notion that a bishop in the church acknowledges the loss of freedom to choose. What inspires me about this particular case is the power of love between father and son that would enable a man to celebrate life, commitment, the hope for a joyful future. Without knowing how this will end up, the winners and the losers have been identified. I don’t even have to know how I feel about homosexuality in general to know that Dad wins. And once again, the “church” seems to have reinforced the truth of what Presbyterian preacher Ernest Campbell once said: “Nothing is sadder in the eyes of God than a minister who started out with a calling and ended up with a career.”
I mean no disrespect for Bishop McLee. Nor do I mean to trivialize any personal struggle he may endure over this case … but as he is portrayed in this situation, he seems to have become a “career man”. In any event – and at the very least – he did have a choice. To suggest otherwise is not only to admit to a loss of freedom; it is an abdication of responsibility.
One other thought … Maybe it’s time for bishops the world over to lighten up.