BY DON NELSON
Sometime ago a very astute and respected acquaintance posted some insightful words regarding “Law and Justice.” Her post prompted me to begin reflecting on my own perception of those two often connected but not necessarily compatible terms.
I would rise to support equality of all aspects of human life. Not seeking to find what is worthy of support and what is not. I do not need an external rulebook to tell me what is and what is not to be supported. Equality means just that. The unconditional opportunity that every human being has to realize a full and meaningful existence.
For my agnostic and atheist friends – please indulge me.
If, indeed, the God of the Bible is a God of love and if, indeed, the greatest command is to love our neighbors as ourselves – I find no justification for qualification. It is an unconditional acceptance that is required. To try to argue otherwise is simply an indictment of one’s own spiritual flaws – biases and bigotry.
Now to the topic at hand – “It is a long road from law to justice!” Those words remind us that the two cannot be assumed to be the same. We know that.
But so often in our church these days the arguments justifying putting pastors on trial for officiating at weddings for LGBTQ persons have to do with Church Law, as found in the Book of Discipline. As in most debates they end up with someone resorting to, “Well the Bible says …”
I find the Book of Discipline to be a codification of the personal biases of those who feel a need to grab hold of and defend a Biblical understanding – which is less Biblical than it is personal and biased.
The law – which the Discipline is for any United Methodist – can be a two-edged sword. On the one hand it offers ecclesiastical structure and provides a sort of governance to the denomination. Arguably it can be said that is a necessary function.
However, on the other hand, as a book of codified rules of conduct and belief, it is a fortress in which to hide. I once heard a judge say he didn’t necessarily agree with the laws regarding marijuana but as long as they were codified as the law he had to enforce them.
That raised for me a question as to how those laws might be changed. It is a civil/secular process – bills have to be introduced and debate engaged.
In the United Methodist Church – that title alone is meat for another picnic – the process is much more subjective. It hinges upon those who are delegates to a General Conference.
I had a professor of Methodist Polity that was very enamored with the fact that this denomination has been, since early on, structured like our system of representative governance. Certain members of local churches are selected to be representatives to a gathering that then deliberates, considers resolutions, debates issues and makes changes in church rules.
The longer I live, the less trust I have in the representative structure. It is nearly impossible for all the people to be equally represented.
The other issue I have is perpetuation of a literal interpretation of Biblical literature as the basis for making rules.
There was, during my younger days, a song whose chorus went, “I fought the law and the law won.” It will always win, at least the initial skirmishes. There is another song that is a counter point to this and it contains the words – “We shall overcome.”
Change is never easy, never painless and always, always requires sacrifice. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew all too well. In his speeches we find glimpses of his understanding.
He said: “The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.”
If there is to be any change it will not be realized by a conservative leadership. Change requires risk and conservatives take no risks.
“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
If those of us who desire freedom and equality in society and in this religious institution, it will not happen because we meekly and gently implore upon the kindness and goodwill of a Council of Bishops or a gathering of representatives. It will only happen as a culture of fundamentalism and less-than-adequately-prepared leadership are put on notice.
The post that prompted me also stated: Every time we appeal to “it’s the law” to justify the trial of a pastor, we are showing how little we have learned from the long, weary history of codifying injustice in “the law”! Yes, laws are necessary; but no, law and justice are not the same thing.
Often, we need, we desperately need, to be encouraged, even forced, to journey from what the law stipulates to what justice requires.
The negative aspect of law is that it isolates and insulates power from those being governed. We see that in so many areas of society. It’s the law – I do not have to retreat from a perceived threat and if armed I can use lethal force. Then I hide behind “the law.”
The United Methodist Church has done precisely the same thing regarding equality in marriage for LGBTQ persons – human beings that the very same church likes to proclaim God loves. It’s just the life they lead that is not loved.
A total stack of rubbish and an abominable distortion of the Good News. How can it be Good News to anyone to be told you are loved – but how you love is not acceptable.
We need to fight the law. We need to know that the law will win – until the pressure gets too great. We shall overcome is not pie in the sky optimism. It is the expected outcome of the struggle. It is the battle cry that changed history once – as it will again.
In the words of Pete Seeger’s song, “Don’t take your eye off the prize” – move on, move on.
– Don Nelson lives in Lawton, OK and is a frequent contributor to The Oklahoma Observer