“The Politics of Proportionality and Fairness” or “Why I’m Not Impressed When You Tell Me Yours Is Bigger”
Let’s pretend there are three kids: youngest, biggest, and oldest. Cool Dad brings home ice cream and wants to be “fair.” The oldest says, “I’m the oldest and have more responsibility, therefore, I should get the most, the biggest should get less, and the youngest should get the least.”
But, the biggest kid says, “What? I’m the biggest. My body requires more calories than the others. I should get the most. The other two are smaller. They can split the rest.”
Then the youngest says, “Am I not an independent human being with rights and privileges no less than the others? At minimum, we should all get the same, but realistically, you’ll give me more than the others because I’m the youngest!”
Unless you’re having flashbacks of childhood resentments and projecting yourself into my hypothetical situation, you can probably recognize that each child makes what sounds like a reasonable argument of what is fair. That’s because “fair” is a loaded and subjective term used to appeal to someone’s emotions in order to wield force over another.
There are different delegates at Annual Conference who are arguing for fairness. Here’s their rationale.
- The South has lots of members, shouldn’t the South have more representation on committees, boards, and at General Conference than the West (for example), which is losing members?
- The South gives more total dollars than the West (for example), shouldn’t the South have more representation?
- Looking at the world-wide church, the fastest growing area of United Methodist members is in Africa; shouldn’t Africa have a larger proportion of members? On this last point, delegates have even gone so far as to say that anything otherwise would be racist! (See ADCA, page 361, petition #20626).
That all sounds so reasonable, doesn’t it? Until you realize that it’s all a diversion tactic. (In logical fallacies, I think this is called a “red herring” when you use a rhetoric fish to lead the hunting dogs on the wrong path.)
First, membership numbers are a measure of who joined years ago. If you have a church with 400 member on the rolls and 80 in worship, should it have twice as much representation than a church with 200 in membership and 400 in worship? That would be foolish and yet that’s what they’re trying to argue.
If you take average worship attendance and divide it by the lay membership which gives a proportion of active worshippers to membership roles, here’s what you get:
- Western: 0.515
- North Central: 0.477
- Southeastern: 0.409
- Northeastern: 0.385
- South Central: 0.368
In other words, the West has the highest participation per membership role, and while the South does great in membership, those people aren’t all coming to church. (See http://lukewetzel.wordpress.com or if you really want me to dig up all the actual GCFA stats, let me know and I can ask Scott Brewer to provide them.) Now, my retort does NOT make the argument that the South isn’t big—it is big—but this isn’t about “fairness”—it’s about power and a desire to use any formula to justify that power.
Second, at the Western Jurisdiction meeting on the morning of the 29th, we discussed that per capita giving to General Conference apportionments is the highest in the West. (Again, if you want me to dig these up, I’ll ask for the reference at the next meeting and/or I’ll ask Mr. Brewer.)
Third, let me come back to the Africa issue because this is going to be a big deal.
Please don’t take what I’m saying as an attack on the South. I have no beef with the South or Southerners. I have a beef with the Good News Movement that’s attempting to use the South as a pawn for fundamentalism and theological rigidity.
You see, back in the 1980’s (or so), gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (hereafter referred to as LGBT) people came out of the closet (some of them admitting they were gay and losing their families and others admitting they were Christian and losing their friends). Both Christians and Queers agreed that you couldn’t be both LGBT and Christian, and yet courageous people stood up and said, “Um, actually I think you can.”
But, since most others thought they were either confused or just really happy Christians, it took some time to actually believe them. Still, at every General Conference since the early 90’s, there they were, trying to break through the bar of the plenary session (although truth be told, there were and are many already there, just look for the really happy delegates).
Two things happened in response. First, the Good News arm of the church (with some leaders in the South) fought back by getting anti-LGBT legislation passed, like forbidding the blessing of loving couples and restrictions on how money may be spent.
Second, the country has changed. In 2011, polls by Pew Research indicate that support of gay marriage has risen to 45% and Gallup and ABC put support of gay marriage at 53%. In addition, because support of gay marriage is much stronger in younger generations than in older generations, it is likely that the balance is going to swing much stronger toward eventual legalization in the whole U.S.A.
Therefore, the Good News arm of the church enacted a new strategy. They recognized (a) that the tide was shifting in the US toward full acceptance, (b) that people in the west tend to be much more progressive and liberal, (c) that friends of theirs in the South want to keep it more conservative, and (d) that Africans are too worried about famine, malaria, AIDS, war, etc. to care about something no one talks about in Africa. Therefore, proportionality! They thought, “If we argue for fairness, we can strip the west of all of its liberal delegates and voices, and stack the deck in favor of Southern conservatives and African delegates who are going to take another ten years at a minimum before they’ll want to begin talking about homosexuality.” They used Southerners and the African delegation to wield force over progressive voices.
So, where does that leave us? First, this is why General Conference often sounds either homophobic, racist, or both. It’s because of a false dichotomy/choice/scenario created by these Good News leaders and sustained by liberals who don’t know what’s going on and fall into the trap. You can see it happening regularly on the Twitter stream. Ugh. Don’t do it. STOP blaming the African delegation. They really do have a lot of active participants and they deserve to have a voice and role. Yes, it is more conservative, but great leaders are helping to pave the way as in the stirring sermon given at the dinner hosted by the Black Methodists for Church Renewal (just ask the MFSA and BMCR delegates who were there). Be patient.
Second, those who believe in vital congregations, evangelism, and church growth must reject arguments for “proportionality.” Representation based on proportionality is backward thinking, based on old membership roles. The only way we can be faithful to our calling to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world is to have representatives on boards who understand a particular mission/cultural area and who commit to the world-wide mission of the church. Forget proportional leadership by force and vote for mission-based formation of committees.
Third, progressives, liberals and free thinkers MUST reject these false arguments for “proportionality.” Otherwise, you will soon find yourself voting alone. And, while I am at it, I beg you to stop letting the anti-LGBT Good News leaders defund the West, which is a part of the same tactic (as in Petition Number 20642 “Episcopal Funding” to be discussed on Friday). Friends, it’s going on, right now, every day this week in the legislation. I know it sounds good, but it’s a chocolate mousse pie filled with $#!+. Please do not let them undermine the West.
Fourth, and I’m not sure if I’m off base or out of line about this, but… I’m worried about the socio-economic, racial fall-out of what may happen if Good News gets everything it asks for now (i.e. maximum, membership-based proportionality) and the U.S.A. portion of the church finds itself in eight to sixteen years with a “taxation without representation” situation where it’s providing an overwhelming majority of the money, and the African delegation has 50-70% of the board positions based on membership with full control over financial distributions. I would hope that everyone (and I mean everyone, including African, other Central Conference and US delegates) recognizes that this situation would be unsustainable and could very well mark a radical dismantling of the entire denomination. I don’t mean to sound alarmist or money-ist or condescending, but I really don’t think that it’s ever good for people to have unfettered decision-making capacity on the spending of money to which they did not substantially contribute. Do you get what I mean? It’s unsustainable; something will crack and it won’t be pretty.
Rev. Anthony Tang
Desert Southwest Conference
PS: By the way: children should never be given ice cream based on what’s fair. They should get a limited amount based on what the parent (or guardian) thinks is appropriate for that unique child (and/or occasion), and as long as a large quantity’s reserved for Uncle Anthony, especially if it’s spumoni, which was my dad’s favorite whenever we had Italian dinners. “I miss you, Dad!”
Note: After consideration of the thoughtful comments and questions expressed below, I have made some revisions to this blog post, choosing to remove the characterizations of the Good News faction as being "fundamentalist."