This past week, I took my children to see the latest MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) film, Spiderman: Homecoming, a somewhat typical coming-of-age superhero movie. It had the elements of most modern versions: a villain pushed to a life of crime, a budding hero juggling a secret identity and a normal teenage life, and the wise mentor teaching him the trade.
As we watched, there was one scene (one that was in the trailer as well) that stuck with me. Spiderman confronts the bad guys on the Staten Island Ferry and things go wrong. An alien weapon goes off and cannot be controlled, splitting the ship in half. Spiderman tries to save the ship by spinning webs between the two sinking halves and holding it together. In the end, Spidey needs a little help Iron Man and ends up getting issued a big time out from his mentor.
But that image, the one of Spiderman holding the two halves together stuck with me. It stuck with me because it reminded me of the current situation in the United Methodist Church. The UMC is every bit the image of Spiderman holding the two ships together: The right, intent on expressing a particular version of orthodoxy and doctrine as central in Methodism, the left trying to make social justice the centerpiece for another version of orthodoxy and doctrine, the Middle Way spinning webs and trying to hold the ship together as it takes on water and begins to sink and everyone using the litmus tests of LGBTQIA inclusion/exclusion and hermeneutics as their instruments of war.
Honestly, at this point, I feel like I have been shot at by both sides. After graduating from the premier conservative Wesleyan seminary and two years serving in one of the most liberal jurisdictions in Methodism, I find myself not being liberal enough for some, not conservative enough for others, and the middle strikes me as a fruitless endeavor to get two screaming children to stop fighting. As pessimistic as this sounds, it’s actually led me to a peaceful place in my ministry, one not bound or beholden to any side in the discussion. I have found the place I have sought for a number of years now as a balanced expression of faith. I have come to the place of simplicity.
I have decided I want no part in this grand war of Methodist ideologies though time may prove those words to be futile. I have decided that there is a singular passage which I hope to live up to, in to, and out of as a minister.
“Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
He replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”
Many of you will say, “I am doing that. We have to have to show love by giving people boundaries to keep them from harm” or “I am doing that. We have to show love by accepting everyone no matter who they are.” Boundaries are good and acceptance is good but is either a fool proof expression of love? Can you accept those you have deep, fundamental disagreement with? Can you love someone you refuse to acknowledge? Can love someone you see as inferior for their perspective? Can you love someone who is actively against the people you love?
This is obviously an incomplete analysis and I am sure that some people will read this and poke holes in it and critique it according to your way of thinking but I ask you to stop. Stop trying to defend yourself and your way of seeing the world and embrace loving others first. Not defining them by your doctrine, not defining them by your understanding of social justice, just love them, as they are, where they are. If we are not loving God with all of our beings, not loving neighbor as we love and nurture and protect ourselves, we are not yet at the place of maturity to attempt imposing our theological understanding on them (if we ever are and I doubt that). Love first. Love again. Then, we’ll talk.
Who knows, maybe God will swoop in like Iron Man and the ferry together long enough for us get out of this mess.