UMC Pastor Arrested at Occupy Seattle

Another United Methodist pastor has been assaulted by the police while trying to be a buffer and a voice of reason between protestors and police. Both UMC pastors who found themselves in this situation were in full clerical garb. Both had been calling out for peaceful protest and been standing between police and protestors before the incidents occurred. From the descriptions they give of the incidents, it is difficult to see how their intentions could have been misinterpreted, or how they could have been deemed a threat in any way.

In November, Rev. Rich Lang was pepper-sprayed while he had his back to police and was waving the protestors back toward the sidewalk. He sees the Occupy movement as an opportunity to provide wisdom, experience, and pastoral care as well as gain an understanding of the issues and “an opportunity to build relationships and open conversations.”

This week Rev. John Helmiere was beaten and arrested while in circumstances very similar to Rev. Lang’s, urging people on both sides to non-violence. He describes his experience in his blog. He was participating at the request of “some of the most exploited and underpaid laborers in our city,” people his spiritual community had been working with and ministering to for the past year, and a basic agreement with the goals of the movement.

There is no question that Jesus spoke up for the outcast and the disadvantaged. There is no question that the Methodist Church has a strong history of social activism. But just because the church took a stand, it doesn’t necessarily mean it was always right. In the early 19th century, the Methodist Church split over the issue of slavery, both sides believing they were right. With Francis Willard leading the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, there was a strong Methodist involvement in bringing about the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. In this case the sentiment may have been righteous, but it had unintended consequences and didn’t work out so well for us as a country. In the comments I’ve read on some of these articles, I’ve seen strong opinions on both sides of the issue of church involvement.  One article “United Methodists see Occupy protest ties” explains the motivation of many United Methodists for getting involved. There are also comments on both sides of the issue. It’s worth the read.

The response of law enforcement to protestors has been varied. These events capture our attention, but in many communities police have not resorted to violence, have worked to protect the rights of the protestors as well as other citizens, and when arresting people for civil disobedience have done so with a minimal amount of force. I know some excellent law enforcement people, so I’m not posting this as an indictment on them, but to pose a question about the movement. Do you think clergy should get involved? If they choose to get involved, should it be as citizens unidentified with the church or as clergy? Obviously, as individuals they have a right to express their opinions. I guess the question is about methods and means.

My personal opinion? (For those who don’t know me, I’m NOT clergy.) One comment I saw suggested that “those whose highest devotion is Humanity” are idolaters and that our first devotion should be to God and His Kingdom. Of course our first devotion should be to God, but I can’t help but think of the passage from Matt 25:31 – 46, where Jesus separates the sheep from the goats. He commends those who have fed and clothed him, welcomed him when he was a stranger, and visited him when he was sick and in prison. When He condemns those who did not do these things, they ask Him when they didn’t do them. His response is “to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (NAS) I suggest that standing with those who are calling for justice might also be something that Jesus would approve.

Protesting may not be your “thing,” I’m not suggesting that everyone has a responsibility to do it. We have a responsibility to be obedient to what God calls us to. I do think that supporting those who are willing to take that step, who are being obedient to their consciences, is something that we can and should do. We can certainly add these men and other people of faith involved in the movement to our prayers. That they are able to represent God in extending Grace and Love to the people they encounter.

Please let me know what you think. Civil discussion, agreement, and disagreement are welcome.

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