A Tale of Two Bishops (Part 8)

Barring a just resolution prior to a trial in either case — and realistically, is this possible in either case? — in an ideal world, if there is reasonable evidence for the allegations, Bishop Wandabula and Bishop Talbert should both go on trial.

I’m sure there are other ways that Bishop Talbert would prefer to spend his time. However, I don’t need to introduce Bishop Talbert to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They shared a jail cell in Atlanta for three days and nights. I certainly don’t speak for Bishop Talbert, yet I can’t help but wonder if Dr. King’s reasons for going to Birmingham were some of the reasons that Bishop Talbert did as well. There are the reasons that Dr. King gave in a well-known response to eight clergymen, two of whom are (retroactively) bishops in The United Methodist Church. To quote from this open letter:

… I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the eighth century prophets left their little villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home town, and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Graeco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere in this country. …

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: There are just laws and there are unjust laws. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “An unjust law is no law at all.”

Now what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of Saint Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.  To use the words of Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher, segregation substitutes an “I-it” relationship for the “I-thou” relationship, and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. So segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, but it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Isn’t segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, an expression of his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? So I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court because it is morally right, and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances because they are morally wrong.

Let us turn to a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal. On the other hand a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.

Let me give another explanation. An unjust law is a code inflicted upon a minority which that minority had no part in enacting or creating because they did not have the unhampered right to vote. Who can say the legislature of Alabama which set up the segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout the state of Alabama all types of conniving methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters and there are some counties without a single Negro registered to vote despite the fact that the Negro constitutes a majority of the population. Can any law set up in such a state be considered democratically structured?

These are just a few examples of unjust and just law. There are some instances where a law is just on its face but unjust in its application. For instance, I was arrested Friday on a charge of parading without a permit. Now there is nothing wrong with an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade, but when the ordinance is used to preserve segregation and to deny citizens the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and peaceful protest, then it becomes unjust.

I hope you can see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law as the rabid segregationist would do. This would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do it  openly, lovingly … and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law. …

I’ll be the first to admit that this is not a perfect analogy. For example, professing membership and ordination in The United Methodist Church is voluntary. That is one important distinction. Despite this and other possible distinctions, it is certainly arguable that Bishop Talbert has broken a law that he considers unjust and has done so “openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.”

Bishop Wandabula presents a different picture. Bishop Wandabula provided the Judicial Council with “a thick binder of documents” that neglected to include an alleged dismissal of a complaint.

One of the allegations against Bishop Wandabula includes not allowing African members of annual conference to vote for General Conference delegates. Maybe voting rights are a “Western concept”, but I think this is a serious allegation that the Council of Bishops could address rather quickly.

The Judicial Council politely told the Council of Bishops to help resolve the complaint against Bishop Wandabula. Under normal circumstances I would give the Council of Bishops the benefit of the doubt here and assume there is work “behind the scenes.” We are no longer under “normal” circumstances. The “Statement of November 15, 2013” has told us as much.

The “Statement of November 15, 2013” has proclaimed, “When there are violations of the Book of Discipline, a response is required.” Where is the statement from the Council of Bishops concerning Bishop Wandabula’s alleged violations?

There are of course cultural differences here. (One difference noted previously: “College of African Bishops only has funding to meet once a year.”) Bishop Coyner has already fumbled this badly by “suggesting” Bishop Wandabula resign. This would be unacceptable in the United States. It’s also unacceptable across the Atlantic.

I’d like to be “optimistic” that this situation can be resolved through the judicial process for both bishops. I have my doubts. Recently, traditionalists have been better at playing church politics. To them, it might be OK for a bishop to “mismanage” $750,000 as long as he has lots of “vital congregations” and can reliably deliver votes at General Conference.

There is one cynical lesson from Decision 1238 that the people of The United Methodist Church are better off confronting now rather than putting off until May: if a College of Bishops sits on a complaint, no one outside the Jurisdictional/Central Conference can do anything about it.

My next post concludes this series with some general thoughts about how the current situation might look to the world outside the Church. “The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world (¶ 120).” In other words, that world.