“Loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what’s right and shake up the status quo.”
~ President Barack Obama, speech at Selma/Bloody Sunday 50th Anniversary
In two short sentences President Obama answers critics who question his love of country, and he reframes American Exceptionalism as something we are all working toward. America’s promise is still being realized through the interruptions of oppressed people pushing back against the idea that we have already arrived. Like those who marched on Bloody Sunday 50 years ago, American Exceptionalism is in the process of being made real by those who “loved this country so much that they’d risk everything to realize its promise.”
The words Obama spoke on that holy ground of Edmund Pettus Bridge are reminiscent of words uttered some 150 years ago by another president on a different blood stained battleground. People gathered at Gettysburg prepared to consecrate the ground, but President Lincoln instead told them it was they who were the ones who needed to dedicate themselves “to the unfinished work” of America. As President Obama said:
That’s what it means to love America. That’s what it means to believe in America. That’s what it means when we say America is exceptional.
It is dangerous when we allow an idea like American Exceptionalism to be claimed and owned by one group, allowing their radio and tv commentators the sole responsibility of defining that idea and the privilege of using it as a weapon against those outside their world-view. As President Obama said:
Selma shows us that America is not the project of any one person. Because the single-most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” “We The People.” “We Shall Overcome.” “Yes We Can.” That word is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone. Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.
In 2012, Bishop Melvin Talbert made a similar witness in reclaiming the idea of Biblical Obedience. He was not willing to allow those who oppose LGBTQ inclusion in the church to be the sole interpreters of the Bible. Bishop Talbert argued that the Scripture calls us to full inclusion of LGBTQ and all people—that we are required in the words of Scripture to act justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with God, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Bishop Talbert has answered the criticism of those who claim those working for LGBTQ inclusion do so outside the tenants of Scripture by stating emphatically that Scripture is the story of full inclusion.
In the spirit of Bishop Talbert, and Presidents Obama and Lincoln, perhaps we should examine another idea that has seemingly been held hostage: the Unity of the Church.
In the history of The United Methodist Church, and really in all of Church history, this idea of unity has all too often been employed at times of change that threaten to splinter the faithful. Unity of the Church has been invoked at the sake of specific groups of people facing discrimination and oppression: slavery, people of color, women, and LGBTQ people.
Many of our UMC bishops have been all to quick to remember their charge in the Book of Discipline to “have a passion for the Unity of the Church” and all to forgetful concerning the proceeding paragraph charging them to be “a prophetic voice for justice in a suffering and conflicted world.”
Said another way, in the Book of Discipline, a UMC bishop’s calling to be an advocate for unity comes after (not at the sake of) their prophetic voice for justice. Unity of the Church is never to be invoked to maintain, protecting those with power and privilege at the sake of the marginalized and oppressed.
If we applied President Obama’s hermeneutic, the Unity of the Church might look something like:
Unity of the Church requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what’s right and shake up the status quo.
Through this understanding Unity of the Church requires us to listen to the disruption by the oppressed as prophetic truth that calls us to that unfinished work—moving on to communal perfection—the Beloved Community.
Our continued work begins in watching for and listening to the stories of disruption, whether they echo from 50 years ago from a bloodied bridge, 46 years ago outside an inn called Stonewall, or are happening right here in our very midst. May these stories encourage and embolden us, helping us learn the art of disruption, so that we may dedicate ourselves to interrupt injustice wherever and in whatever forms it presents itself—together realizing America’s promise and for the Unity of the Church.