Methodist War Games

Wargames 1
Image from the movie War Games (c) 1983 Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios

I love movies.

I think it was probably my father’s love of story that really helped to propel that appreciation to the forefront, but whatever the reason, I am a fool for cinema. As a kid, one of my favorites was War Games, a sort of science-fiction styled warning about the improper use of modems and artificial intelligence. In the film, Matthew Broderick plays whiz kid hacker David (with a wicked looking Commodore like system) who finds his way into a military mainframe and begins playing a game called Global Thermonuclear War. Sounds nice and innocuous, right? Except that the computer, Joshua, is actually a machine of artificial intelligence that is running the United States defense system of nuclear weapons and doesn’t think that the game is a game, thus setting off a series of events that lead to the brink of World War III.

The climax of the movie finds Broderick’s character and that of the computer’s creator at NORAD trying desperately to convince the computer that the game is not worth playing because the outcome, no matter what happens is an absolute stalemate. They eventually convince the computer to work through all the possible scenarios of a global nuclear war by playing Tic-Tac-Toe and showing the computer that in both cases, there is never a winner. The game, no matter how you play it, is always a stalemate.

Ladies and gentlemen welcome to the current state of the United Methodist Church. On one side, we have those who are fighting for complete LGBTQ inclusion in the church, on the other, those who are committed to fighting for a traditional Methodist view and interpretation of Scripture and the Book of Discipline. Both are capable of making cogent points to support their arguments. Both can find Scriptural and hermeneutical grounding to make their cases.

Neither can win.

Because of the polity of the UMC and the way we conduct denominational business, especially using things like Robert’s Rules of Order, there will be a vote that has to the potential to create an exodus of ministers and churches either way. The Wesleyan Covenant Association is making contingency plans and the Reconciling Ministry Network has said they will continue to defy any rulings that run contrary to their beliefs about faith regarding the LGBTQ community. This brings me back to the movie, particularly the climactic moment regarding the computer’s analysis of the game and for that matter, war in general.

“A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”[1]

This almost seems like an impossible approach regarding the current UMC situation. Yet, I think there is a way to learn the same lesson that Joshua, the computer learns. I think it is learned not in the current situation, the battle is too far out of hand for anyone to really do much other than wait for the vote and the carnage after the fact, but in the future beyond. I think the real focus for Methodists going forward should not be in a large-scale organization like the current UMC but in the beliefs which make us Methodist. By the beliefs, I mean the Wesleyan distinctives that make us, well, Methodist (for more information see the Book of Discipline, ¶102) however we might interpret those. I think this will necessitate a change from the current form of episcopal governance to something that falls between it and the Southern Baptist / WCA member model. I have no idea what this looks like or even has the potential to look like. I simply know as the computer said, “the only winning move” is not to play the current game as we have been playing.

I have remarked on occasion that my ordination this year as an elder in the UMC feels a lot like being made captain on a sinking ship. While everyone else is running to the lifeboats, I get to figure out a way not to let the ship go down with me on it. But the truth is, I will be a Methodist regardless of the outcome. I will do my best to live by and preach the gospel through the lens of the Methodist distinctives passed down to us from Wesley. I think that is how we go on, no matter our preferences, beliefs, or predilections on the matter of inclusion. I think it is what being Methodist is, not being a part of a denomination, but being a part of a rich tradition and history that leads hearts to be ‘strangely warmed.’


5 thoughts on “Methodist War Games

  1. Michael, I like your movie characterization of our current dilemma. And, I agree that the only way to win is not to play the game. Unfortunately, leaders on both sides ( if there are, indeed, only two sides) have already committed to playing the game, regardless of the damages inflicted by the end result. I feel for you as a soon to be newly ordained pastor. It’s a bit different for retirees like me. I don’t have the status of elder statesman ( meaning no one listens to me any more), so I’m reduced to a sort of spectator role. I can see the train wreck developing, but I don’t have any control. I guess the best I can do is hang around and love whoever makes it through to the conclusion. Blessings upon you, brother.

  2. Interesting comparison. I like that you have the courage to bring it up. A friend of mine, retired elder feels we are going back in time when we were segregated with the black church etc. you might add in text from discipline and scripture from bible that each side is using to uphold their point. Well done Rev

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