People and Institutions

            Sometimes people fail and institutions protect us. Sometimes institutions fail and people protect us.

            When I was about 22 I realized I had to make a conscious decision about the outward form of my spiritual life. I felt Christian, but the public image of the Christian church did not reflect my beliefs nor what I understood of Christ. (Read “The Grand Inquisitor” by Dostoevsky for a pretty good analysis of my feelings).

            The choice was whether to leave the Christian church because I didn’t want to be associated with this public image, or stay and be an internal voice for my beliefs. I chose the latter.

            Mary and I for the first time in our lives now attend a United Methodist Church. The world governing body of the UMC just last week made a very traditionally conservative decree towards the LGBTQ community that disappoints us very much. The UMC church we attend is a reconciling congregation by intentional decision, flies the rainbow flag, and has many members of non-traditional sexual orientation.

            So we, and all UMC members have to make a choice. Neither choice is without pain. It turns out that almost any choice of importance in life is like this.

            Those of us who leave our church are abandoning a community of which some have been part for a lifetime, a community which includes our LGBTQ members who choose not to leave—and many will stay.

            Those of us who stay are to some extent implicitly endorsing this official policy that is to us unchristian and which creates pain for the general LGBTQ community, many of whom are practicing Christians.

            Our institution, the governing body of the UMC, has failed us. In my opinion, the vote should never have happened. Many of the representatives from around the world are from cultures that are not there yet with freedom of sexual orientation. After all, It’s a relatively new idea even here. It was way too early to think that any definitive policy statement could encompass this diversity of cultures. If the vote had gone the other way, there would have been equal, if not greater, pain caused in other parts of the world to what we are experiencing here.

            Some will not accept that last statement because they are focused on what is right. They will feel that the pain of people who are wrong is not the same thing, not so worthy of concern. I hope they will think again.

            First of all, pain is always pain. It’s not to be wished on anyone. We are not vengeful. But if you want something more practical: pain causes anger. Anger causes hurtful actions. Hurtful actions always harm the weak and the minorities more than anyone else, and always, eventually, come back to where they started.

            I’m not saying that we should never do anything because someone will get hurt. In fact, I’m saying exactly the opposite. It is impossible to do anything meaningful in the world without causing pain, so in order to progress, we must cause pain.

            What I am saying is this: don’t ever use relief of pain as your only reason for doing something. That’s hypocritical. You must play God with your eyes open. You must recognize as human family all for whom your action will cause pain, and consciously decide that it is worth it. Not worth your pain, but worth their pain. And not worth it just for moral reasons but for practical, long term political and social reasons. How will those people’s pain manifest in the future to cause you and your cause difficulty and, yes, pain? And, most importantly, is this the best time to act? Is the benefit vs the pain as great as it can be?

            This is why governing anything, from a small school board to a large nation, is so difficult. Of course, some people are corrupt and/or stupid, but they are a minor problem (I know it doesn’t seem that way). Even if everyone is wonderful, meaningful decisions cause pain. They always do, and causing pain comes back to bite you eventually.

            It also perpetuates divisiveness, us vs. them. We have to heal pain wherever we find it. Even in those whom we despise or discount, even in those who oppose us. Somehow we must offer a balm to them even as we thrust the sword. The first step in doing this is to see them. To look them in the eye and say, “Yes, I know what I am doing is causing you pain. I am sorry for that, and I want to understand your pain.”

           Can we do that?

           Until we can, we have no hope of ending our continuous cycles of violence.

           For those who are disappointed by the current president and his party, please look forward to the inevitable time when the pendulum will swing and people of whom you approve take over. You must have compassion and a desire for understanding now for the millions of your brothers and sisters who support this president. Only then can you have any hope of actually governing and caring for the whole country when you have your chance.

         Many of us are hoping that our institutions will protect us from the failures of people in our government. With the Methodist Church, it is the institution that has failed, and we, the people of the church, must be the protectors. We think we can do that best from within, so Mary and I will stay, and we will face those who are hurt by our decision and listen to their pain.


Hugh Moffatt
Waltham, Massachusetts
March 6, 2019