Courtney T. Ball

Ten Years After Our Call for Repentence

In 2004, during my last year of seminary, I and my friend Josh Steward wrote a petition calling for George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to publicly repent or be kicked out of the United Methodist Church (UMC). We then put it on a website called TheyMustRepent.com and asked everyone we knew to sign it.

As you might have predicted, this caused a bit of a stir. When signatures started coming in, there were plenty of supporters, which was encouraging, but also quite a few angry responses. People called us all kinds of names, told us to get off drugs, move to another country, or just die already. Back when we had control to remove responses, we deleted some of the more hateful ones.

That website is no longer active, but the letter, addressed to Bush, Cheney, and copied to Bush’s Pastor, District Superintendent, and Bishop, is still hosted by Petitions Online. If you’re interested, you can read it and view signatures there.

How This Came About

At the time, there was a growing conservative movement within the UMC that brought formal charges against clergy who came out as homosexual or pastors who supported gay marriages. The “practice of homosexuality” was, and still is, considered “incompatible with Christian teachings” by the United Methodist Book of Discipline, the official rule book of the church. Those pastors who actively supported gay marriage and full inclusion of all, regardless of sexual orientation, were monitored, charged, and often found guilty of violating church law. Many pastors were stripped of their ordination and pressured to leave the church.

The full inclusion of GLBTQ persons in the life of the church was (and still is) a huge and divisive issue. At the time, it seriously threatened to cause a split in the UMC, one of world’s largest denominations. As such, it garnered major media attention.

Meanwhile, hardly anyone seemed to care what the Discipline had to say about war. Even though the United Methodist Council of Bishops had written a letter begging Bush not to go to war, it was still a widely held assumption that President Bush was a man of faith and that most Christians supported him.

Josh and I wanted to say loudly and clearly that we thought it was much more important for the church to speak out against the crime of war than it was for us to hunt down and discipline pastors who simply wanted everyone to be able to publicly declare before God their love for whomever they chose.

Generally at that time pastors were the targets of disciplinary action. However, there was nothing at all in the Book of Discipline that said clergy were the only ones accountable to church rules. In fact, a strong case could be made that the very core of Methodism (as envisioned by its most prominent founder John Wesley) resided in the notion that members committed to practice their faith. They “methodically” worked on their own spiritual growth, striving for perfection. In John Wesley’s day, membership in a Methodist society was revoked rather quickly if one did not demonstrate active pursuit of perfection and repentance of wrongdoing.

With this history, Josh and I wondered how we had arrived at a situation in which the two most prominent and powerful members of the United Methodist Church were able to blatantly ignore church teachings and direct appeals from their Council of Bishops, and yet no action was taken by the UMC to hold them accountable.

John Wesley himself was quite willing to speak truth to those in power, especially when it came to war. He considered war to be perfect evidence for the existence of original sin, and he vehemently opposed those who advocated war. (For a somewhat cheesy but still interesting portrayal of John Wesley’s views on the matter, watch this video—contains actual Wesley quotes.)

Reflection and Repentance Ten Years Later

Of course, Bush and Cheney never publicly repented, and our petition was largely ignored by the church and the rest of the nation. Ten years later, the conditions in Iraq are arguably much worse than when we wrote our letter.

I don’t know if our letter had any influence on them, but almost two years later (Nov. 2005), nearly 100 UM Bishops did write a statement in which they repented of their own “complicity in what [they believed] to be the unjust and immoral invasion and occupation of Iraq.” They also adopted a resolution calling on President Bush to draw up a plan and timeline for withdrawing from Iraq. The Bishops received more press coverage than us, but their statement was still mostly ignored in Washington.

Looking back, I admit that our tactics were aggressive and more judgmental than what I would probably employ these days. They were born out of despair rather than hope or love. During the entire Bush presidency, I felt like my voice and the voice of other Christians committed to peace fell on willfully deaf ears. The war (and all the injustice that came with it) just continued.

As much as I hoped President Obama would change our nation’s approach to conflict (and I think he has somewhat), I grew disheartened when he continually affirmed his own willingness to “hunt down and kill” any terrorist that threatened the security of the United States. He knew that in order to win an election, he had to prove to the American public that he was committed to violent retribution. He had to satisfy our blood-lust.

Perhaps Wesley was right that this sin is embedded within us. Maybe humanity is destined to always be a brutal race that will never learn to solve disputes without resorting to oppressive violence. I hope not. My most fervent prayers are those that pray for more peace and generosity and love in the world.

Ultimately, however, I know that God will not handle this problem for us. As much as God may desire for us to live in harmony, it is clear that God does not intervene to keep us from killing one another. Only we can do that.

One thing I have learned as a parent (and forgotten, and relearned, repeatedly) is that nonviolent behavior is best taught outside the heat of conflict. In the midst of an argument, it is extremely difficult not to fight for power, to attempt to win at any cost. In other words, once a situation has escalated to battle level, reason is usually thrown out the window.

I think the same is true on a national or international level. As necessary as it seems, it is not very effective to call for peace and nonviolence only when the nation is actively pursuing war. Instead, peace must be taught and committed to even more so during those times when we feel out of danger.

We can’t change the past. We cannot undo the acts of retaliation and aggression that we let our nation commit after 9/11. But God help us if we refuse to learn from our mistakes.

I understand that the quagmire of Iraq and the Middle East is still a grave threat to US security. I know that even now our President is sending more “advisory” military personnel back to Iraq after our withdrawal a year and a half ago. Like it or not, we have an ongoing role in the conflicts of that region.

That being said, I believe that now is the time when an organized peace movement could be most effective. Now is the time, when our country is frustrated with the results of violence and wary of war, that we should call for reflection, repentance, and a commitment to reduce our tendency toward violence in the future.

The call for war will come again. Let’s not wait until then to raise our voices for peace. By then, the drumbeat may be too loud to overcome. Instead, let’s talk now about alternatives to violence, about what we might have done and might do next time, so that when the time for marching orders arrives, the well-paved road toward violence is not the only direction we feel we must march.

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Courtney Ball

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