Our Scapegoating Epidemic, Part One
The Church Seeks Another Scapegoat
I didn’t understand what it is like to be the scapegoat until I answered a call to be a transformational leader within the United Methodist Church. When we are used as a scapegoat by a religious group, it wounds our souls. My experience of being scapegoated by the UMC nearly destroyed me. However, I also learned a number of very transformative lessons during my experience with the UMC.
Understanding at a personal level how scapegoating works helps me resist and confront the epidemic of scapegoating in our world today. This article is the first of a series on scapegoats and the narcissists that need them. [I will be posting on this subject over the next several weeks.]
Since scapegoating seems to have originated with the Abrahamic tradition, I will begin with an examination of a specific case of scapegoating that is playing out this month with the United Methodist Church.
Religious affiliation helps meet three human needs: believing (in something greater than ourselves), belonging (our need to be in a tribe or community), and being (our need to engage in grounding or centering practices). These needs are not equally distributed. Some individuals have a greater need to belong, some need unity and purity of beliefs.
Denominations and congregations also place different emphasis on these three needs. The early Methodist movement in England placed an emphasis on “being a new creation in Christ” in powerful ways that transformed the lives of people and the larger culture. For the past few decades, the emphasis of the ruling majority within United Methodist Church has shifted their priorities toward fundamentalism and insistence on the absolute and unquestioned righteousness of their specific doctrinal beliefs. The conservative majority is insisting on imposing their belief that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching on the entire denomination. Christians have always disagreed about interpretations of the Bible, there are multiple Christian traditions, are very few truly shared Christian beliefs embraced by all Christians. Christianity has a horrible history of violence and abuse grounded in extremely divisive interpretations of Scripture.
The United Methodist Church in the United States is an institution plagued with a pervasive decline in membership, a scarcity of financial resources, and intense internal battles over doctrinal purity. Over the decades that the UMC has been fighting this internal battle, millions of members who believe in equal rights for LGBTQ people as have left UMC churches, especially in the West. Some have joined other mainline denominations that have resolved this wicked problem. Others experienced such intense spiritual trauma that they have completely given up on Christianity. Thousands of the most gifted young leaders, who grew up in the UMC, have chosen to respond to their call to ordained ministry and their commitment to equality by leaving the UMC and becoming ordained in other denominations. The crisis in attracting young clergy is most severe in the Western Jurisdiction of the UMC.
The people in the pews in Methodist churches rarely understand the systemic problems of the institution or the authoritarian culture that gives Bishops control over Pastoral leadership decisions throughout the denomination. There are many complex factors contributing to the decline of mainline Christianity and the harm done to LGBTQ people is only one of many causes for the decline. Other mainline denominations have resolved the LGBTQ conflict, but they are still experiencing declining participation. Whenever a system is experiencing the stress of organizational decline, insiders are generally unable to identify their personal responsibility for the decline. Leaders within the system fail to recognize the complexity of the wicked problems they face. The greater the narcissistic tendencies of the leaders of the group, the more likely it is that a scapegoat or scapegoats will be identified as the problem. Getting rid of the scapegoat is an easy solution to the problem, and most importantly one that allows the leaders to project their own guilt or failings rather than do the hard work of personal and institutional change.
For decades the leaders of the UMC in the West have primarily blamed one issue for their decline — the denomination’s official, open, and blatant condemnation of homosexuality and discrimination towards LGBTQ people. For progressive inclusive Methodists, their number one scapegoat is the growing majority of conservative homophobic Methodists.
In the West, progressive UMC leaders (clergy and laity) have tenaciously focused on fighting the battle within the UMC for inclusivity. For several years, I too was caught up in this movement to change the UMC from within.
Every four years the UMC General Conference meets, and the progressives have consistently resisted the threats from the conservative majority to split the denomination over the issue of LGBTQ equality. Because of the hierarchical and connectional nature of the UMC (and the control that the denomination has over the real estate, financial assets, and the ordained clergy), there are valid reasons to be afraid of what might happen if the denomination were to split over this divisive issue. Progressive ordained UMC Elders (clergy) have had the most to lose — they might lose their guaranteed right to an appointment (guaranteed job), there would be uncertainty about a fair distribution of pension assets, and disruption to their UMC health insurance benefits. Their congregations might lose their beloved (but aging) church buildings.
Over the past decade, the UMC has been left behind as the other mainline denominations and the majority of the general public now fully embrace LGBTQ equality. The UMC was once known as a middle of the road denomination, but now it is known as one of the most conservative. Since so many progressive former Methodist, desiring to simply belong to authentically inclusive Churches, have already left the UMC. The conservatives have increased their majority power even though they too have experienced declines in membership. The conservatives, holding a solid and increasing majority position, have become bolder with their threats of schism. They believe unity or purity of belief that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teachings” is absolutely necessary to save their beloved church and their own souls.
A major battle is looming. The UMC Judicial Council will meet April 25–28 to decide the fate of Bishop Karen Oliveto. The Western Jurisdiction elected Karen as the first openly gay Bishop in July 2016. They believe, and I share their belief, that Karen is divinely ordained and highly qualified to serve the Western Jurisdiction as a United Methodist Bishop.
When I attended Pacific School of Religion from 2005–2008, the then Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto was one of my favorite professors and a personal mentor. When I had serious doubts about continuing within the UMC, she encouraged me to continue saying, “The UMC needs your prophetic voice and passion for equality and justice.”
Although I made the choice to leave the UMC in 2011, I deeply respect Bishop Oliveto. Unlike many UMC Elders who claim to be LGBT allies even though they have not been willing to risk any of the power, privileges, or economic security for the cause, Karen Oliveto was boldly and publicly at risk for years as an out lesbian serving the perfect congregation for her gifts and passion for justice, Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. Because of the high profile of her appointment to Glide, and the solid support of the Bishop she served under, Karen could have simply and relatively safely continued her role as a Senior Pastor and advocate within the UMC. But she didn’t play it safe.
After prayerful discernment with her wife Robin, Karen agreed to place her name into consideration for election as a Western Jurisdictional Bishop. The spirit of justice and love moved in a powerful way, and the Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto was elected and consecrated and she is serving as the Bishop over the Mountain Sky area which includes my home state of Montana.
Karen Oliveto was born on Good Friday. Perhaps even as a child, she was destined to be a scapegoat. Immediately after her election as a Bishop, the conservative parts of the UMC charged forward with their plans to protect the purity of their beliefs and remove her from her position as a Bishop. Bishop Karen Oliveto “embodies” the conservatives fears of doctrinal impurity which for them is a threat to their personal salvation. They must fight this battle or their beloved Church and they will burn in hell. From their perspective, Bishop Oliveto is the scapegoat who must be sacrificed to save the UMC from sin.
As insiders to a diseased system, the conservative leaders cannot see the correlation between Karen’s trial and the sacrifice Jesus made. One must be sacrificed to save the whole. They are repeating a violent pattern that has plagued Christianity from its beginning. In addition to their flawed interpretation that condemns LGBTQ people, they also cling to the doctrine of substitutionary atonement and a violent God who would sacrifice his only son in an extremely painful way out of anger for the sins of humanity. The irony of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is that Jesus was supposed to be the scapegoat to end all scapegoats. That never happened and Christianity has continued to sacrifice innocents for the sake of doctrinal purity for more than two thousand years. When there is conflict within the Church, “One must be sacrificed for the good of the whole.”
On the other hand, I think the progressive UMC clergy and lay leaders who elected Karen to be their Bishop are living in LaLa Land. Insiders in a declining system, they needed a savior to lead them to the promised land of a fully inclusive and welcoming UMC. Sure, after they boldly voted for Bishop Oliveto, they probably took a little more flack from the conservative members back home in the pews, but after forty years of working for justice, they were prepared for the challenge. Karen Oliveto was highly qualified to be Bishop, certainly, no one would deny her authority. Electing Bishop Oliveto and consecrating her was a modern day Palm Sunday march into Jerusalem. I don’t believe the allies fully understood how the demonstration might end. I believe Karen and her wife Robin did understand.
Bishop Karen Oliveto has demonstrated great courage taking a huge risk, following Jesus, walking the path of a willing scapegoat. She has personally laid down her life as a Pastor and UMC leader — she is the one who will face the trial and possibility of being expelled, defrocked, losing her status as a UMC Elder, and her position as Bishop. Her role model should inspire all of us to be more courageous.
It will be interesting to see how her progressive UMC colleagues react during the intensity of the trial, and when she is eventually punished by the conservative majority. Will they pick up their crosses and follow her, or will they play it safe like the disciples did? So much is at stake for both sides.
But as is always the case, the scapegoat has the most skin in the game. The scapegoat is always the most vulnerable.
[Note: My prayers are with Bishop Karen and Robin as they prepare for the upcoming trial, and as they endure the experience of willingly following Jesus… taking up whatever cross the UMC Judicial Council might cause them to carry.]