Thursday, November 10, 2016

On diversity and tables

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

The United Methodist Church tends to think about diversity in a particular way. The church, for a variety of legitimate historical and organizational reasons, tends to evaluate its progress (or lack thereof) on issues of diversity in terms of membership numbers and percentages on various official bodies.

The church asks, for instance, “How many women are at General Conference?” “How many laity are on the Commission on a Way Forward?” “How many Africans are directors for the General Board of Church and Society?” “How many young adults are on this annual conference committee?” These questions are intended to be indicative rather than comprehensive in terms of the underrepresented groups and the relevant bodies in the church.

This way of understanding diversity and inclusion can be summed up in the question, “Who has a seat at the table?” United Methodists spend a lot of time figuring out which groups account for what percentage of the seats around various tables.

This approach to issues of diversity and inclusion is not a bad one and has important merits. Nonetheless, it is not the only way to think about questions of diversity and inclusion, and it would behoove United Methodists from time to time to ask ourselves other questions related to whether we are adequately reflecting the diversity of God’s people in our common life.

If we like the metaphor of a table for thinking about voice, representation, power, and inclusion in our denomination, we could even ask these other questions in terms of tables. Here, for instance, are some other questions we could ask ourselves about diversity and tables.

“Where at the table are people sitting?” The image of a roundtable is popular in church lingo because of its implication of equality for all those sitting around it. Yet, if we’re being honest, not all of our tables in the UMC are round (literally or metaphorically). And even at round tables, not everyone has the same view of the speaker, access to the food and drinks, proximity to the door, etc. Especially at non-round tables, where one sits determines with whom one most closely associates, who can hear each other, and one’s prominence in a meeting. It’s not just who’s at the table, it’s where they are sitting.

“What type of table is this, and who chose the table?” Tables can be made from a variety of materials and can come in a variety of shapes. Different tables (for instance, conference tables vs. dining tables) are appropriate for different uses. Often, representatives of different groups are included at UMC tables but had little say in determining what type of table it is. Thus, what happens at that table is in part pre-determined by the people who chose the table. Many of the (literal and metaphorical) tables in the UMC were built in the 20th century, mostly by white, American men. The people sitting around them now are not all white, American, men, and none are living in the 20th century, but all are still in some ways constrained by the types of tables built by white, American men of generations ago. These tables may not always be comfortable for people of different ages, gender, races, nationalities, and abilities than the table builders.

“What are we doing at the table?” Tables can be used for a variety of purposes – eating, holding meetings, playing games, etc. As with the style of table, which partly determines its uses, those who sit at a particular table may not have been the ones who determined what the table would be used for. Again, many of the uses of our tables (literal and figurative) in the UMC were determined two or more generations ago mostly by white, American, men. Even when those sitting around the table reflect new generations and a wider diversity of genders, ethnicities, and nationalities, they may still be forced to eat the same sorts of meals, hold the same sorts of meetings, and play the same sorts of games as the originators of the table ate, held, and played. Worse still, not all may understand the game being played at the table or realize that it’s not the same version of the game they’re used to playing at other tables.

“Are the tables at which our representative groups are sitting the most important tables?” Not all official bodies that theoretically have decision-making power actually exercise that power. It is common, in the church and in the world, for the “real decisions” to be made elsewhere, at another time and by another group, than the official group who gives its stamp of approval to the decision. If the tables at which our carefully chosen representatives are sitting are not the tables where decisions are happening, then they are just so much window dressing, to mix architectural metaphors. Worse still, not all may be of the same understanding or knowledge of which decisions get made at which tables.

“Should we be sitting at tables?” In the end, we can even question this metaphor of seats at the table. What do we miss out on understanding about how culture and diversity work in the kingdom of God if we always talk about tables? What would we instead gain by talking about ingredients in the gumbo, or dancers in the dance, or musicians in the band, or other metaphors?

Seats at the table are important. But United Methodists can’t be content to just sit around on issues of representation and inclusion in the church.

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