A Time to Follow Rules, and a Time to Refrain from Following Rules: Reflections on Occupy Wall Street and the United Methodist Church

By Rev. Vicki Flippin and Rev. Nathan Bledsoe

We serve a God who once chided the religious authorities, "The sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath." (Mark 2:27) Jesus had no issues with standing up to the legalism of his day, and that often got him in trouble. This is particularly challenging language to hear as leaders within our churches -- like so much of what Jesus says.

But Jesus didn't hate on all the rules--our biblical tradition is full of them. And a huge portion of them explicitly took care of the most vulnerable in society: financial codes that provided for periodic debt relief (Deuteronomy 15:1-2), agricultural codes with provision for the poor to use field space to grow their own crops (Exodus 23:11), commandments to ensure for the provision of resources for immigrants, widows, and orphans (Deuteronomy 14:28-29). This is by no means an exhaustive list; over and over again there is provision for the underserved and disrespected members of society, the "least of these," that is theological in foundation and was culturally unique and revolutionary when it was written and lived out by the people of God.

These are some of the Biblical foundations of the Christian life that we were taught as children in United Methodist Churches, Nathan in Texas and Vicki in Missouri. And it was passion and hunger for this tradition of faith that brought us both as young people to seminary and ordination. Our paths crossed in the fall of 2011, when we were both embarking on new chapters in our ministry. It was that year when Vicki became associate pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Village in New York City, and Nathan became the church's first seminary intern. Nathan was at that time a Texan spending three years at the progressive and socially active Union Theological Seminary. Vicki was a young, newly ordained pastor supervising her first intern, Nathan. We both learned a lot that year and are still learning together as we stay in touch between Manhattan and Houston.

If you were in New York City in the fall of 2011, one thing you would definitely remember is Occupy Wall Street. Most supervisors of Union students that academic year basically lost track of their interns for several months as students interacted with the activist movement, serving as protest chaplains, wiggling fingers at general assemblies, and getting a real-world education in social activism. Both of us learned a lot from that intensely fertile moment of resistance, community, and risk-taking.

During our supervisory sessions, Nathan was particularly sympathetic to the radically democratic sensibilities expressed in the occupied Zuccotti Park. Every decision was made by consensus, in opposition to hierarchical and top-down systems, which often advantage those who already have power. In the United Methodist Church, those systems translate to the rules and order imposed on clergy and churches by the church structure. We were both feeling quite a bit of cynicism about denominational rules and authority, which we saw harming LGBTQ people and hindering the relevance of Christianity in the lives of young people.

In a perfect irony, Nathan's internship focus at Church of the Village was on children's ministry, and his major task was to create a "Safe Sanctuaries Policy"--basically he was creating a bunch of new rules and orderly systems for people working with children. As young people in the church, we were used to simply being told what to do, so it was new and intriguing to actually be the ones making up new rules. Through this experience, we began to understand the fundamental and sacred reasons for rules and order.

The Occupy movement was also starting to develop its own rules and order. The group had developed almost a utopian society in this little park, with a library, free food kitchen, sanitation department, corner for religious activities--all free and open to anyone, all run by volunteers and with donations. People came to this small society from all over the country and from the streets and apartments of New York City, and many stayed overnight, a part of the 24/7 "occupation". But soon the utopian spirit was disrupted by crimes being committed within the park at night. The most disturbing crimes were violent. Sexual assaults were occurring.

The community had an understandably antagonistic relationship with the NYPD, so the assembly, an inefficient but extremely democratic and inspiring governing system that developed among the occupiers, created an internal public safety patrol to keep the park safe at night. It was fascinating to see the anti-establishment society establishing rules and order.

What we young idealists discovered together during that time of order creation was a simple principle: rules and order are necessary to protect the vulnerable in a community, whether they be children, minorities, the accused, or people targeted for discrimination and violence. But of course, we know all too well that so often rules and order serve other, more base purposes. Sometimes--like the rules that have been developed in our denomination in the last 44 years to restrict the rights of LGBTQ people and like the anti-LGBTQ laws being passed so boldly in several states this year and like every rule Jesus broke--rules and order serve to harm the vulnerable rather than protect them.

Many, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the prophets, and even (we think) Jesus, have drawn the useful distinction between just and unjust laws. Our great task in each new day is to learn to distinguish one from the other. For us, we have found the principle of how rules and order affect the most vulnerable to be an important test, and we apply it to the rules and order of our denomination, including the rules and order of the ten day international gathering of United Methodists in Portland, Oregon this month.

As Bishop Melvin Talbert has said regarding LGBTQ discrimination in our denomination, "The derogatory rules and restrictions in the Book of Discipline are immoral and unjust and no longer deserve our loyalty and obedience." Our litmus test of immorality and injustice lies in this simple question: "Does this rule or orderliness serve to protect those in power or those without power?"

This is why we support the many pastors conducting same-sex weddings in defiance of immoral and unjust church law. This is why we support the many LGBTQ clergy and candidates for ordination who are serving in ministry (and the ordination boards that support them) in defiance of immoral and unjust church law. And this is why we will not be afraid to support disruptions to the rules and order of General Conference in upcoming weeks.

For many in our denomination, including those who support LGBTQ equality, disobeying our legislated rules and order can feel like a betrayal of our "covenant" of being United Methodists together. But we have seen too many times rules and orderliness and even "covenant" used to make the powerful majority feel comfortable, avoid real dialogue, preserve institutions, and supplant the safety and dignity of vulnerable people.

Rules, order, and covenant are important. Without them, there is chaos, and chaos can be very dangerous for vulnerable people. But, as followers of the rule-breaking Christ, we must never divorce our rules and order from their original purpose. And we can never allow them to become more important than that purpose: to protect the rights and safety of the vulnerable, not the comfort and institutions of the powerful. This is what we conclude from a faithful reading of scripture, especially in the work of the prophets and the ways Jesus interpreted holy texts and cultural norms. And we humbly offer these conclusions to you, our fellow companions on this journey.

For those who do not support an LGBTQ-affirming church, we hope to have given you some insight into our convictions and the reasons for our actions. For those who believe in LGBTQ equality but who also place a high value on rules and order, we implore you to consider this question in every moment as we conduct the business of church:

"Does this rule or orderliness serve to protect those in power or those without power?"

Rev. Nathan Bledsoe and Rev. Vicki Flippin are United Methodist elders serving churches in Texas and New York, respectively. Nathan blogs about theology and culture at revnayte.com.

You can watch a live stream of the United Methodist General Conference May 10-20 here.