by Bob Phillips
Arguably the finest and most readable book outlining that beginning of World War 1 was Barbara Tuchman’s masterful work, The Guns of August. Published in 1962, it so impressed President Kennedy that he gifted his cabinet and key military leaders with copies. Awarded the Pulitzer prize for general non-fiction, it remains in print to this day, very readable and very relevant to consumers of its wisdom. In his own assessment of the war, Winston Churchill talked about how “the terrible ‘ifs’ accumulated, drawing Europe into a collective disaster no one could foresee and no one wished to see.
As the United Methodist Church lumbers toward its own version of events (the Guns of Minneapolis?), several simple insights from the book can assist in making sense of the process, assumptions and attitudes pushing the global church toward some ‘dark and indefinite shore,’ words Lincoln used to describe a dream shortly before his own death of a boat journey to an unknown destination. Consider the following examples.
First, in late July Kaiser Wilhelm developed a last-minute notion of pausing the mobilization and deployment of the German army if certain concessions were made by potential adversaries in France and England. War had not been declared but the German staff had been working meticulously on plans for war for years. When General von Moltke heard the Kaiser’s idea about a pause, he melted with rage, arguing that all plans had moved the army in one direction and that it was impossible and impractical to shift direction on short notice. Application: Hold all assumptions of ‘what next’ in an open hand. Conservatives (like me) are wise to plan for contingencies but unwise to let the tail wag the dog, i.e., if reaffirming a form of the Traditional plan “fouls up all my arrangements” (to leave?) something is odd. If progressives are successful in swinging a bare majority (nothing more) to repeal the decisions of GC2019, they are wise to plan for contingencies but unwise to assume a status quo of selective obedience rooted in conscience can continue without real upheaval. Think apportionments, refusing to accept appointed clergy (Glide Church?) or planting satellite churches without ‘permission.’
Second, French senior leaders were convinced that the offensive attack, regardless of circumstances, would win the day as French elan, inner bold spirit, would triumph. Hundreds of thousands of French troops were butchered in needless and hopeless attacks when the tactical situation called for calm and prepared defense. On a lesser scale, when they received requests prior to the outbreak of war to shift French combat uniforms away from the bright red pantaloons of tradition, senior staff responded with outrage. Only after tens of thousands of French soldiers were slaughtered in the opening two months of the war, obvious targets in their bright red pants, did common sense prevail and uniforms fit for trench warfare produced. Application: Beware the bane of denial, or “protective stupidity” as is defined by Richard Tedlow of Harvard. Conservatives are wise to assume that many of like-minded will depart the UMC if the GC votes certain actions, but unwise to assume the size of that number. Liberals are wise to assume a broad sense of discomfort with profound change that makes a resuscitated One Church Plan appealing but unwise to bless protecting the status quo of a dysfunction and deathly ill US church in the name of unity.
Third, the German war plan called for a decisive strike at France by crossing through neutral Belgium. The tight and meticulous time table prepared by the German general staff required a slashing shortcut to push France off balance and win the day, and the war, in weeks. No one dreamed that tiny Belgium, with its minuscule army and meager resources would put up anything beyond token resistance, especially when promised that the Germans would not damage their land or people or things. The Germans were stunned when Belgium resisted, somehow bothered by the jack-boot invasion of their nation without notice. Their defenses were overwhelmed, the great medieval library at Louvain was torched together with much of the country, civilians were shot by the thousands…but the German schedule was thrown off course, setting the stage for the loss of precious time, precious movement to predetermined points, and eventually after four years, loss of the war. Application: Beware projecting your definition of “reasonable behavior” on others whose views you reject and whose stories you do not know. Conservatives are wise to envision gracious exits rather than vicious legal and financial battles but are unwise to assume more than a handful of liberals will leave the denomination if GC2020 again votes traditional, i.e., prepare for the “Belgian” liberals to resist. Liberals are wise to seek generosity of conscience in a One Church Plan approach on marriage but unwise to assume most will prefer what they perceive as a weather vane over a compass in discerning moral direction in matters such as the nature of marriage. Huge slabs of “Belgian” conservatives will leave, drop out, or quit actively supporting their local church. Research suggests 80% of American adults who tithe their income to church or charity are self-avowed, practicing evangelicals; loose change will become lost change, lots of it.
Comparisons of the upcoming General Conference with the start of WW1 can get out of hand. True, in the 20-year projection of the Presbyterian Church USA, the casualty rate for membership from 2000-2020 in fighting over this and other issues is projected to be 60%, which in a real combat environment would render the unit functionally useless. And our mainline Reformed friends included only US members. The good news is that each of the simple lessons offered above are easy to grasp, relevant to all stakeholders, and conducive to the humility essential to any Christian conferencing on contested issues. Naming these demons can help the church avoid their peril in forward motion toward the center of God’s will for the church in the 21st century.
Chair WCA, Illinois Great Rivers Conference
Degrees from University of Illinois, Asbury and Princeton Seminaries, University of St. Andrews
Graduate of Senior Executive Seminar on Morality, Ethics and Public Policy, Brookings Institution
Captain, Chaplain Corps, US Navy (ret)
Your comparisons make interesting reading. However, in this age of mass shootings, I believe it was ill-advised of you to include the parenthetical phrase “(Guns of Minneapolis?)”
Chill, Paul. It’s a metaphor from real history. And not a bad one at that.
Chill? Another mass shooting since I posted. Metaphor, shmetaphor. Also, when I choose to post, I use my name, not initials or a pseudonym.
Very valid points about the fallacy of assuming what will happen.
We are at this point because Bishops and others assumed that General Conference would do what it has never done before: legitimize a new and improved sexuality ethic that is in step with the current culture.
As in WWI, the problem begins with miscalculating Generals (AKA Bishops).
Add to them the noise from the largely independent Boards & Agencies who represent special interests.
And you have further evidence that a fish dies from the head.
So far the General Conference election season at Annual Conferences has not gone well for traditionalists. We’re just past the halfway mark for delegates elected. Ultimately I think the “One Church Plan” folks will fall short (although if trends continue it will be very close) but the greater danger is the possibility it will increase the likelihood for that side simply to give GC2020 another shot and roll the dice. If so, GC2020 will make GC2019 look like nursery school.
The Progressive sect has already made it clear it will not abide by General Conference 2019, so if General Conference were to be flipped, it’s hardly likely Traditionalists will be in a mood to bend the knee to triumphal Progressive parades. Traditionalists learned a significant lesson at GC2019 about Realpolitik. Progressives no longer operate under cover of darkness; they do what they want regardless of law. That’s all on record.
Traditionalists will not obey future Progressive dicta, understanding its true nature.