“ Then Laban said to Jacob, ‘See this heap and the pillar, which I have set between you and me. This heap is a witness, and the pillar is a witness, that I will not pass over this heap to you, and you will not pass over this heap and this pillar to me, to do harm.’” -Genesis 31:51, 52
In his poem “Mending Wall” Robert Frost reflects on the annual ritual of walking with the owner of the neighboring farm to replace any stones that might have fallen from the boundary wall between them. The poet reflects on the traditional wisdom that “good fences make good neighbors.” The stacking of rocks calls to mind the pillar set up by Laban and Jacob to be a sign of peace between them. The two agreed not to cross the shared line in order to do harm to one another.
In the debate over human sexuality in the UMC, each side notes potential harm if the other side has its way. Those who read scripture as clearly teaching against homosexual practice see a potential compromise of biblical values and an exodus of the faithful if our stance is loosened. Those who interpret scripture in a way that allows for homosexual practice see harm being done in the continued prohibition against same sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. In our current debate, each side downplays the seriousness of the potential harm noted by the other side as if doing “moderate harm” might be acceptable. Is there truly a way to do “no harm”? All potential solutions create challenges, but it might be time for United Methodists to reflect on the value of a good wall.
I have observed over the years that bad walls make bad neighbors. Walls that are too thin can cause all sorts of problems in apartment complexes. I walked up on a fight once between two neighbors over a fence that was placed in the wrong location. Walls only desired by one side create deep resentment. The extreme example is the Berlin Wall that stood as an icon of the Cold War. One might consider recent calls for a security fence at our southern U.S. border to keep people out.
Good walls, however, are nothing other than healthy boundaries, a crucial ingredient to authentic ministry. Good walls are made out of the right materials, are in the appropriate location, and are sized correctly. A good wall is one that is agreed upon and maintained by both sides for mutual benefit.
United Methodism is rife with lines, boundaries, walls, and borders. Some are useful and some are not. I continue to suggest that The United Methodist Church needs to reimagine our system of jurisdictional lines to create walls in places that would help us do no harm to one other in our present debate. Like China’s Great Wall, our current system of geographic jurisdictions is placed with the needs of a bygone generation in mind. It stands as a curious relic of mid-twentieth century denominational politics.
American United Methodism currently needs only two jurisdictions, both with the authority currently enjoyed by our central (non-U.S.) conferences to adapt our Book of Discipline in certain ways. Annual conferences would take a vote to affiliate with the more progressive or the more traditionalist jurisdiction and their churches, clergy and properties would follow. Local churches and clergy would be given a time window in which to dissent from the annual conference, if they feel they must, and be placed in a conference of the other jurisdiction. The two new jurisdictions would redraw their conference maps to serve the entire United States and completely overlap. American bishops would also choose a jurisdiction and serve accordingly. As now, conference and jurisdictional lines would be porous enough to allow clergy and bishops to serve across our lines, with permission, to remedy any imbalances in numbers.
Please visit the Jurisdictional Solution website to learn more about the plan. You can view the full text of the four legislative changes needed to build a “do no harm” wall in United Methodism. What do you think? Do you see a better way for both sides to do no harm to each other at General Conference 2016?