Mobs pay no attention to the law. They're sure they know better than the law, and so they become an emotional law unto themselves, acting as they want to act, not as the law says they must act.
A deceptively docile mob mugged United Methodist Church law last week in Bothell, Washington, near Seattle. The mob was passing as a United Methodist jury in the Rev. Karen Dammann case, but it definitely was a mob nevertheless, dispensing mob justice. It broke into Methodist jurisprudence, spoke utter inanities, freed a properly charged defendant, and trampled on the rule of law, leaving a host of victims in its wake.
So a mainline denomination's court fudged on its clearly written polity. Okay. You call that news? Wouldn't it be news if a mainline denomination actually followed its written doctrine and polity these days?
You got me there, but this instance just has to be one of the most egregious denominational examples of the breakdown of law and reason. It could hardly be more clear-cut and dramatic, more ridiculous and disgusting.
And before those from other denominations get too smug, watch out! This kind of mob justice may be coming soon to a church near you. It's a sorry sign of our deconstructed times.
The primary victim
Mobs leave victims, and this mob is no exception. The primary victim of this mob action is the rule of law: the sense that order, legislation, integrity, proper authority, or even meaning still holds. Thirteen clergy jurors could look at the passage in the Methodist Discipline that reads "Since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church" and then say, "We searched the Discipline and did not find a declaration that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."
The jury sustained the specification that the Rev. Karen Dammann is a self-avowed practicing homosexual. No argument there. They just refused to put the rest together. (See the news story or the official jury statement.)
In addition, a number of other disturbing factors played into this mob action:
- Bishop Elias Galvan, who practically had to be hung up by his thumbs to be convinced to bring the charges, just barely complied. He reluctantly charged Dammann, but then lost no opportunity to especially praise her, weaken the case, and rejoice when she was acquitted.
- The Rev. James Finkbeiner, who prosecuted the case as counsel for the church, failed to maximize his opportunity to seat an unbiased jury; presented limp, wooden, perfunctory arguments; called only one witness for the prosecution (reluctant Bishop Galvan); and then wasted no time in expressing his personal joy and relief when his case failed. This man never wanted to win, and his feeble case evidenced it.
- Although Methodist jurors are instructed that those "who state that they cannot in good conscience uphold the Discipline are ineligible to serve on a (church) trial jury" and should excuse themselves from service, these jurors apparently didn't exercise the integrity to step aside.
- Bishop William Boyd Grove, who presided over the court, allowed the Methodist Discipline, itself, to be put on trial, as if the regional court had the right to make national law rather than adjudicate it.
There's a word for all of this: corruption.
More victims in churches
Rev. Dammann's church members in Ellensburg, Washington, are victims. Let's face it: Their bishop saddled them with a controversial pastor more intent on doing her own thing than on serving their best interests. Her flocks seem quite secondary to this shepherd. In the last several years, Dammann has spent more time on personal leave than in serving the church. She did find time, however, to slip off to Oregon right before the trial for an in-your-face, bootlegged "wedding" service with her partner.
Her congregation also must bear with an apparently theologically naïve pastor as well. After the verdict inexplicably fell her way, Dammann commented, "It washed over me that it was over, and I was still in the kingdom. It was an overwhelming feeling." But the trial was over church law and ministry, never over "removing her from the Kingdom." Either Dammann's comment is deliberately deceitful or she doesn't understand the difference between God's gift of salvation and the church's requirements for ministry. In either case, her church is much the poorer.
The Methodist Discipline properly speaks of homosexual persons being of "sacred worth." There is no argument about God's love for any of us, and the extent to which Jesus honors and values us by dying for us. Yet, here is a pastor who doesn't understand the elementary theological difference between having "sacred worth" as an individual in the Kingdom of God, and yet at the same time being fully capable of willful sin and also fully needing to repent and seek forgiveness. What other confused messages does she feed her starving sheep?
Methodist church members elsewhere are further victims. In the entire Northwest, were there not thirteen pastors to be found who knew integrity from deception in order to sit on the jury? If this jury is indicative of Methodist pastoral leadership in the Northwest, how can the UMC ever prosper? (If it isn't representative, who engineered such a skewed jury?) And how many churches will be weakened further by this controversy and a regional structure that has lost its theological mind?
The most tragic victim
The greatest victim, however, is the Rev. Karen Dammann, herself, the self-avowed practicing lesbian minister who was under trial. She now thinks that continuing in "a practice that is incompatible with Christian teaching"—continuing in sin, in other words—is perfectly okay with God. After all, she now has the official license of the United Methodist Church to practice her sin unabated. Her bishop celebrates her lifestyle and calling.
Tragically, no one had the Christian love to tell her through the discipline of the trial that her sin is killing her and separating her from Christ, as long as it remains unconfessed.
And how many other homosexual persons—valuable souls whom God deems of sacred worth—will be similar victims, encouraged by this mob action to continue on in sin, unrestrained by God's loving will, in sin that would damn them?
James D. Berkley is Issues Ministry Director for Presbyterians For Renewal in Bellevue, Washington.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
More commentary from Berkley is available at The Berkley Blog, where an earlier version of this article first appeared.
Christianity Today's Weblog covered the verdict Monday.
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