United Methodists urged to model civil discourse


3:00 P.M. EST Mar. 23, 2010 | UMNS

U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II
U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)—An attack on U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver—who was spat upon and called a racial slur by protesters outside the Capitol—offers an opportunity to model civil discourse and point to a different path, United Methodist leaders say.

“It saddens me, the acrimonious debate both in Congress and in the public at large. We have failed to carry on serious debate without personal attacks and name-calling,” said Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops and leader of the denomination’s Illinois Great Rivers Annual (regional) Conference.

“My hope is that the church would do such an effective job at managing its own difficult conversations that we might be a model for how the world can manage difficult disagreements,” he said.

Cleaver, a United Methodist pastor and Democrat from Missouri, was spat upon by people protesting health reform legislation last weekend. Both he and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Democrat and civil rights icon from Georgia, were also the target of racial epithets. In addition, protesters shouted slurs at U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., about his sexual orientation.

The man who spat on Cleaver was arrested, but the clergyman refused to press charges.

Cleaver said this was “certainly not the worst assault” he has endured in his years fighting for equal rights for all Americans.

“Let us not delude ourselves into believing this is an isolated incident,” Cleaver said. “A calculated campaign fomenting hate led up to this incident. In the strongest terms possible, I denounce efforts to incite people to acts of racism.”

Cleaver’s communications director, Danny Rotert, said the congressman “is disappointed that in the 21st century, our national discourse has devolved to the point of name-calling and spitting.” Rotert said Cleaver believes deeply that the House of Representatives vote on health care reform is, in fact, a vote for equality and to secure health care as a right for all.

Opponents of health care reform legislation rally in front of the
U.S. Capitol in Washington. Photo courtesy of asterix611.
Opponents of health care reform legislation rally in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington. Photo courtesy of asterix611.
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‘Appalling display’

“It ought be obvious now to most persons, that even as all Americans have the right and responsibility to critique presidents and members of Congress, some few people have allowed their un-reconstructed racism to come forth as they exercise their right to protest,” said the Rev. Gil Caldwell, retired pastor from the United Methodist Rocky Mountain Conference. “What doth God expect of the church in such a time as this?”

The treatment of these members of Congress “must be denounced by all people,” said Jim Winkler, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society.

“This past weekend’s appalling display by protesters in Washington, D.C., demonstrates the overtly racist message of too many of the so-called ‘Tea Party’ members,” Winkler said.

The reported actions of some of the protesters are “sobering examples that show racial- and gender-based hate remain active ingredients in U.S. social life,’” says Erin Hawkins, top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race.

“The question for people of faith is, ‘Will we remain silent, content to let these ingredients reflect to the world an ugliness that can do even greater harm, or will we be the transforming power, with the love, grace and peace of Jesus Christ?’ Our churches, our congregations can make a difference in making such behaviors unacceptable. Are we doing enough? We must ask ourselves, ‘What can I do to make this type of conduct unacceptable?’”

The church’s role

There is no room for uncivil behavior, no matter what the discussion, Winkler said.

“I think the role of the church is to establish that there is a standard on the way we disagree with each other and the way in which we engage in discourse with each other,” said Lois M. Dauway, interim top executive for mission and evangelism, United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

“The church needs to help people do their homework, research, think about the issues, talk to each other and make considered decisions.”

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.