Thursday, June 16, 2016

Jacob Dharmaraj: Thinking Beyond the “Issue-Boxes”: A Reflection on General Conference 2016

Today's piece is written by Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj, President of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists.

I love General Conference! It is indeed a joyous place to be. One can witness firsthand the worldwide United Methodist Church doing business.

General Conference is the United Methodist’s quadrennial kumbaya. It is the denomination’s legislative amphitheater, its missional market place, its doctrinal battleground, its connectional system’s fiscal auditorium, and its fisted hand budgetary arena.

General Conference is the public dome where the miraculous and the monstrous are equally part of daily deliberations. It is a place where the boundaries between reality and dreams are blurred; lofty vision and imagined future are carved out through the prism of memory, nostalgia, and high ambition for the denomination’s worldwide church.

I enjoy being at the margin and sidelines of the General Conference from where one could see the fringe events that take place which are equally important for the life of the denomination. After all, what is visible and broadcast are important for the record but what is ignored and marginalized are more important for the conscience of the church. The periphery of the General Conference has a status of its own that often draws a rally, a drama, a scene of media sensation, punctuated more by the reportorial, “The-Whole-World-Is-Watching-Us,” than the revelatory.

There is also an aura that surrounds  the General Conference, viewed as a latter day United Methodist Byzantium where a galaxy of sensitive, sophisticated human beings from all across United Methodism altruistically join forces to achieve spiritually elevating, ecclesially nourishing, missionally wholesome, and globally transformative programs. Consequently, the General Conference tends to become gouty and pompous.

Now that GC2016 has poured its last cup of tea, strapped its tarp and traveling gear to the trailer, and dispatched its last emissary to form a study commission on human sexuality, I will miss the high drama, its suspense and its myrmidon for another four years (maybe two years!)

Global North meeting Global South under Robert’s Rule or the Palavar Tree?
What fascinated me more than anything else at GC2016 was the large presence and active participation of the multiethnic delegates from the worldwide church. To many Christians in the global north, Christians in the Global South belong only to the domain of missions and not in the region of partnership or mutuality. Only recently it is best understood as an independent church and not as an appendage of Western missionary expansion, and they have an identity and selfhood of their own. Yes, indeed, the age of diversity is upon us.

We, as a denomination, are increasingly a community of communities and should treat that as strength. Despite their full participation in the Conference’s deliberations, more often than not, the comments and observations of the delegates from overseas were punctuated by questions about parliamentary procedures and an unfamiliar legislative process. I wonder if there was any count on how many times the delegates had mentioned that they were confused, lost and totally out of tune with the procedure, the process and the progression of the debate and voting policy of the General Conference.

While the proponents of Rule 44 tried to pitch their tents during the storm of parliamentary procedures and when the extensive debate over the Council of Bishops recommendation to table the petitions on human sexuality for another two years was dragged on, more and more delegates expressed their confusion and dismay over the process deeply rooted and firmly grounded in Robert’s Rules of Order, a North American parliamentary process. The cavernous cultural gap and the resonant parliamentary procedure that disjointed the overseas delegates with the US delegates became more evident while hot-button issues were discussed. While the metaphor of doing business under the palaver tree, an African consensus-building process, was floated around, this remained only as a beautiful metaphor.

Tell us in plain words
While I followed the skilled leadership style of the presiders from the podium and the nuanced arguments of the delegates from the floor, for some strange reason, one sentence from a classic literature kept ringing in my ears. It was from a character in James Joyce’s Ulysses in which Molly asks Bloom about Metempsychosis, a word from a book she had been reading. The response Bloom gave Molly was, “It’s Greek: from the Greek... That means the transmigration of souls.”

“O rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words.” So goes Molly’s plea to her lover to explain Metempsychosis.

In my opinion, GC2016 was a weirdly pressurized and verbally jeopardized space due to high-stake petitions that were on the table, such as, Rule 44 and human sexuality. Most importantly, they were crisscrossed with potential divisions and schisms within the denomination. Dropping one’s guard during those tense moments would find oneself holding forth like a lost and somnolent passenger in an international airport terminal in a foreign land.

The vital question that most of us ask after a major event is, “What would history say of this event?” That goes for GC2016 as well. There are narratives we tell our families, the accounts we share with our friends, and most importantly, the versions we describe to our parishioners and ourselves in order to keep on living, serving and ministering. Through the act of narration, we empower others to see what we see. Galileo became famous not just because he saw how the stars move but because he insisted fellow humans see for themselves how the biosphere works. We need to share what we see and shape our society accordingly for the best.

The narratives GC2016 presents is this: Number matters. Persuasion reigns supreme. Status quo prevails. Table difficult issues. If you can’t win, try to cover the opponent with a slow-creeping fog, and mute the voices to ashes with whatever you have in your verbal arsenal.

Rage correlation only with issue boxes
General Conference 2016, I submit, suffered from a rage deficit. It refused to take seriously the persecuted sisters and brothers in Christ in other parts of the world, including the Palestinian Christians. Not just brotherhood but siblinghood matters in mission.

It failed to unleash its righteous anger and holy discontent about the refugees and immigrant crises around the world and by relegating the immigration rally as a freak show. A collective shriek would certainly have gained the attention of those in power around the world.

GC is not all about petitions and politics, but time and memory and love that stand at the heart of GC’s work. A positive, transformative vision statement is not meant just to inspire; it should create the cognitive space for assumptions to be challenged and new ideas to surface. It would help Christ’s holy church if everyone were to get out of their “issue” boxes.

We in the church need to be aware that we are standing on the shoulders of all those who came before us, ever vigilant to examine our role and close the gap between the problems we know and the solutions we propose. So long as the siren call of denial is met with the drone of policy making and petition submitting, the worldwide body of Christ is both being misled and misread.

By the time the study committee on human sexuality prepares its final report in two years, the worldwide church will have gathered in different parts of the world to revisit the 500th anniversary of Protestant Reformation, and studied its impact on human history. The findings and recommendations of the Study Commission will certainly have an impact on our denomination. I sincerely hope and pray that it will enable our beloved denomination to continue to produce spiritual leaders of texture and thoughtful forerunners of caring quality to steer the church through stormy seas. Will our church be comprised of a people divided by our politics, our religious views, and our backgrounds, or will we be a people of diversity and common commitment, with some common boundaries? I hope and believe we can be the latter.


  1. Thanks for a great commentary on the conference, and in particular the way in which an extremely ethnocentric set of rules serves to marginalize, or worse commodify voices from outside the US. A sign that there was literally no recognition by the organizers or dominant voices that a global church must take cultural difference seriously. And a lack of rage, certainly! The issues that mean the most to my friends from 20 years outside the US never even made it to the table.

  2. Excellent. Picking up for UM Insight.