Part of the polity of the United Methodist Church is that each year representatives from churches in a geographical area gather for what is called an Annual Conference. The Annual Conference is meant to be a time of holy conferencing where Christians comes together for worship, fellowship, and to do the business of the church. Every four years representatives from all Annual Conferences get together at a General Conference to do the business of the church that will impact doctrine and polity of all United Methodist churches. Due to this cycle, the Annual Conference before a General Conference year will involve electing delegates and passing petitions to be forwarded to the General Conference.
I attended my Annual Conference last week, and I found it to be especially contentious and divided. This was evident in a few ways. First, the conference was asked to consider three petitions that would change Methodist doctrine in regards to human sexuality. Of these three petitions that would accomplish this two were voted down and one was passed on to the General Conference. In all three instances the vote difference was just a couple percentage points by the narrowest margins. A motion related to the same issue was brought from the floor later and was defeated by the same narrow margins. The other way this divide was seen was through the election of delegates. An incredibly organized coalition successfully managed to get all of the clergy delegates elected who have a progressive stance on the issue of human sexuality. However, the lay people predominantly elected delegates who uphold the church’s current stance that prohibits the marriage and ordination of people with a homosexual orientation.
As I participated in this Annual Conference and I observed this divide, I could not help but think of the move Captain America: Civil War. However, I discovered I already wrote about the connection I saw three years ago! Sadly, the United Methodist Church has made little progress on this issue in three years. In fact, the division and vitriol has only intensified. What follows is an updated version of the original post. The movie is three years old so that this point it is likely unnecessary, but spoilers follow below:
I really liked Captain America: Civil War. I liked it for several reasons. First, the airport fight scene is one of the most perfect scenes of any movie ever. I liked that the plot was a bit more than smash bad guys and save the world. I liked the change of pace, where the bad guy actually won. The movie was about people in costumes fighting each other, but it was also an exploration in how complicated right and wrong can actually be. The type of turmoil that drove the conflict between Captain American and Iron Man is the type of turmoil that we can find within American Christianity.
In the movie the central aspect of the conflict is based around how the heroes operate. Iron Man is willing to accept regulations and control for the greater good. Captain America is not willing to give up his right to do what he thinks is right. The movie does an excellent job at pointing out that both heroes’ viewpoints are valid. The themes of conflict in Civil War really stuck out to me because I am a United Methodist, and my denomination is very much in the middle of a civil war over the issue of human sexuality.
The conflict in the movie comes from the fact that both heroes plan themselves by what they believe to be the river of truth, and tell each other to move. The conflict in the church comes from both sides doing the same thing. I have no desire to wade into the debate about which side is right and wrong regarding human sexuality. You probably already have your own opinion anyway. Rather, I want to focus on the three pitfalls of conflict that Captain America: Civil War points out.
1. Both sides are right, both sides are wrong: This is one of the things that made the movie so engaging. The viewpoints of both sides had a lot of validity, but both sides were not perfect in their logic. This is very evident when the heroes clash at the airport. At that point in the movie it is really hard to say who is right. The fact that the viewpoints of Captain America and Iron Man drove them to conflict shows that both sides were entrenched. There is no effort in the movie to find a middle ground or third way. At one point vision literally draws a line in the sand (or rather tarmac), and the heroes choose their side. In an effort to be right, the two sides fight and everyone ends up in the wrong.
2. When it gets personal the truth no longer matters: By the end of the movie Captain America and Iron Man are beating the living daylights out of each other. At this point it is no longer about what the ideological truth is, but it became about beating the other person into submission. This is because it became deeply personal for both of them. Translating this to the real world, the conflict of human sexuality has the same problem. I am not generalizing everyone who has a stake in this debate, but in my experience I have heard people argue for both side of the issue from a place that was deeply personal. The conflict stopped being about what is Christian truth, and only became about beating the other side. When we are meant to be united, but start talking about there being an “other side”, then perhaps we have already lost.
3. When the heroes fight, evil wins. In Captain America Civil War the heroes fight a lot. There are lots of innocent people hurt, and a lot of property destroyed. His evil plot in Captain America Civil War is also brilliant. His goal is to destroy the Avengers, but he knows he cannot do it on his own. Instead, he gets the Avengers to turn on each other. Towards the conclusion he reveals that this was his plan all along. He explains: “ I knew I couldn't kill them. More powerful men than me have tried. But if I could get them to kill each other. . .”
Baron Zemo’s whole plot was just to get the heroes to fight. When it comes the human sexuality debate, I have to wonder if we are being similarly deceived. The United Methodist Church has become so consumed by this debate, that the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ has taken a back seat to who is right. When the church fights, evil wins. All of the energy we spend arguing is energy we do not spend proclaiming Jesus saves. I know both sides of the debate will argue that their side winning is essential to being able to proclaim the gospel in the first place, but that is not entirely true. When we fight we do not honor the command that Jesus gave to his disciples to “love one another.”
In Captain America: Civil War the heroes fight, the world suffers, and no one truly wins. This was the end result of two sides planting themselves like a tree and saying, “no you move.” Quite honestly, this is what the two side of the United Methodist church has been doing, and I hope we can learn from the mistakes of Captain America and Iron Man. Even if we do not agree, perhaps we can find a way to stand separate but in mutual respect and common purpose. The other option is to go the route of the two heroes in the movie, and beat each other senseless until both sides can barely stand.