Doctrinal debates that define the divided United Methodists (Part II)

Doctrinal debates that define the divided United Methodists (Part II)

The word "conversion" has been at the heart of Christianity for two millennia, with missionaries and evangelists urging sinners to repent and change their wicked ways.

Jesus also needed to be converted from his "bigotries and prejudices," according to Bishop Karen Oliveto, who leads the United Methodist Church's Mountain Sky region. Consider the New Testament passage in which Jesus seems to rebuke a Canaanite woman who seeks healing for her daughter. The woman persists and, seeing her faith, Jesus performs the miracle.

"Jesus, Jesus, what is up with you? … Too many folks want to box Jesus in, carve him in stone, create an idol out of him," wrote Oliveto, in a 2017 online essay that was later taken down. "The wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting one, prince of peace, was as human as you and me. … We might think of him as the Rock of Ages, but he was more like a hunk of clay, forming and reforming himself in relation to God."

In this case, Jesus changed his mind, noted Oliveto, who is the first openly lesbian United Methodist bishop and is married to a deaconess. The global United Methodist Church has repeatedly affirmed its Book of Discipline bans on same-sex marriages and the ordination of "self-avowed practicing" LGBTQ clergy.

 Jesus, she added, "is meant to be a boundary crosser, and in the crossing over, reveals bigotry and oppression for what they are: human constructs that keep all of us from being whole. … If Jesus can change, if he can give up his bigotries and prejudices, if he can realize that he had made his life too small, and if, in this realization, he grew closer to others and closer to God, then so can we."

This doctrinal approach inspires many in the UMC's Western Jurisdiction, a vast expanse stretching from Colorado to the Pacific Ocean. While this region's population has soared in recent decades, 2017 reports found only 295,308 United Methodists. The Southeast Jurisdiction, meanwhile, reported 2,668,806 members.

While 40 years of fighting over sexuality have grabbed headlines, a recent online survey by United Methodist Communications and Research NOW suggested that these fights have been signs of deeper doctrinal cracks in what is now a global flock.

Mad Mel and the Talmud

Police-beat reporters -- even in Hollywood -- rarely get to quote the Babylonian Talmud.

However, there is a passage in this Jewish text that is relevant right now. The crucial Hebrew words are in tractate Eruvin, page 65b, and they are "be'kiso, be'koso, u've'kaso." This rabbinical text says a person's true essence is found in "his cup," "his pocket" and "his anger."

Witness the rich and powerful Mel Gibson and his roadside rant about the "blanking" Jews who are "responsible for all the wars in the world." His cup was too full and his anger spilled over.

"Ancient Jewish wisdom informs us that one way we can know what a person is really like is by how he behaves when he is drunk. From this we can safely assume that Mel Gibson doesn't think much of Jews," noted Rabbi Daniel Lapin of Toward Tradition, which has received some financial support from Gibson.

"However there is another nugget of ancient Jewish wisdom emphasizing that we owe atonement for that which lies in our hearts only to God. ... We humans are morally obliged to make good to other people only for those things we do."

But what should Gibson do now?

After the superstar's hellish meltdown, many of his critics -- Jewish and otherwise -- called for him to be excommunicated from Hollywood.

Anti-Defamation League Director Abraham H. Foxman slammed his early apology and wrote online: "We would hope that Hollywood now would realize the bigot in their midst and that they will distance themselves from this anti-Semite." Superstar agent Ari Emanuel of the Endeavor Agency went even further, stating that Jews and gentiles alike must "demonstrate that they understand how much is at stake in this by professionally shunning Mel Gibson and refusing to work with him."

Is repentance irrelevant? In his second apology, Gibson tried to discuss his failure in religious terms. The Catholic traditionalist also opened a door to meeting with conservative Jews who have talked with him in the past.

"The tenets of what I profess to believe necessitate that I exercise charity and tolerance as a way of life," he said. "Every human being is God's child, and if I wish to honor my God I have to honor his children. ... I'm not just asking for forgiveness. I would like to take it one step further and meet with leaders in the Jewish community, with whom I can have a one-on-one discussion to discern the appropriate path for healing."

If Gibson desires more than what Christians call "cheap grace," he needs more than a few holy day media events, according to Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. In Judaism, repentance is "a play in four acts" and the first is verbal confession. This must be followed by "complete cessation of the offending behavior" and sincere regret.

The tough fourth act, he said, requires long-range planning and an "acceptance of a way to change that is real, not self-delusional." In a way, fighting anti-Semitism will be similar to fighting the bottle.

"You can't deal with an alcohol problem through a photo-op with the head of the local detox program," said Adlerstein, writing for Jewish World Review. Recovery programs that work, demand "growing self-awareness and lots of time. Not coincidentally, they require the privacy of secure surroundings, far from public scrutiny.

"We will help you understand your personal demons, but only away from the cameras and the mikes. Redemption will come through the small, still voice of conscience, not at a press conference."

This will be hard, in the hot Hollywood spotlight.

Reporters cannot follow Gibson into the confession booth or interview his priest afterwards. But they can ask questions about his work and his recovery.

While filming "The Passion of the Christ," Gibson told the Eternal Word Television Network that he asked priests to hear daily confessions, including his own, and to celebrate daily Mass. It would be interesting to ask if he seeks similar spiritual disciplines in the future.

Still, Gibson has said that he "disgraced myself and my family." That's a realistic place to start, said film critic Michael Medved, an Orthodox Jew.

"When a long-married, 50-year-old father of seven gets arrested for drunk driving at nearly twice the speed limit at 2:30 in the morning," noted Medved, "it's safe to assume that he faces even more serious problems than exposing his anti-Semitic attitudes."

Brother Manning, on the road

The preacher's blue jeans are faded and artistically patched to symbolize the ragamuffin theme in his ministry.

The speaking voice is gentle, until the occasional verbal storm shakes the room.

The demons are familiar. Cigarettes, alcoholism and a lifelong struggle with guilt can give a 70-something orator an edge. Once a Franciscan priest, now a divorced Catholic layman, Brennan Manning is the only superstar on the evangelical speaking circuit who goes to daily Mass and to confession as often as he can.

The angels are familiar, too. Manning always begins with the same gentle joke: "In the words of Francis of Assisi when he met Brother Dominic on the road to Umbria -- 'Hi.' " What follows are flights of intellect, hints of poetry and blunt appeals to the emotions that lead to a common theme.

"God loves you just as you are," said Manning, during a swing through South Florida this past semester. "Not the way that you should be, because no one in this building is the way that they should be."

At the Last Judgment, he said, here are the questions that Jesus will ask every sinner: "Do you believe that I love you? That I waited for you day after day? That I longed to hear your voice?"

Year after year, the New Orleans-based Manning speaks in conferences and retreat centers nationwide. He has strong ties to Christians in the music industry, via his 1990 bestseller, "The Ragamuffin Gospel" and a dozen other books. An author's work is going to spread when he draws the attention of Michael Card, Michael W. Smith, Bono of U2 and others.

This message of divine love triumphing over shame, fear and guilt also strikes a chord in a setting that some might find surprising -- modern college campuses. While Christian colleges strive to offer a different environment, many of the issues are the same, said Manning, who as a priest once served as a campus minister.

"Based on my pastoral experience, I think there is serious guilt among college students today," he said. "It may not be guilt about some of the things that older adults think they should feel guilty about, but there is guilt all the same.

"It's guilt that is totally based on friendships and relationships. Most of it is about their peers. ... Many students feel as if they have given their hearts away and then they have been abandoned. Now they feel that they cannot even trust God."

Students may feel tremendous guilt about their parents, often for what to outsiders will seem like paradoxical reasons, he said.

It's natural for the young to feel resentment or hostility toward parents who have neglected them, especially workaholic, distant fathers. Often, they have been given large amounts of their parents' money, but not time and attention. Then there are families that have been splintered by divorce, abuse and various forms of chemical dependency.

These students feel anger, said Manning, but they also feel guilt about their anger.

Then there are the students whose parents have been highly involved in their lives and have sacrificed time and money to help them succeed. This creates a different kind of pressure and, thus, guilt.

"What if," he asked, "you knew that your parents had taken out a second mortgage on their home just so you can go to college? What if you knew that they were really making sacrifices for you, yet you also knew deep down inside that you are a bit of a slacker and a partygoer? Then you would feel guilty because of your own lack of gratitude, your own lack of love."

Over and over, Manning tells his listeners that they must accept that God loves them -- no matter what. As a result, his many critics insist that he is preaching "cheap grace," a kind of Christianity Lite that shortchanges hard teachings on sin and repentance.

Manning insists that his critics are missing the point.

"You see, you do not have to change to earn God's love and compassion," he said, near the end of one sermon at Palm Beach Atlantic University, in West Palm Beach. "This love always precedes the repentance of sins. Repentance is about you. It is about allowing yourself to be loved by God. The love comes first."