How to Respond to a Bully
CynthiaAstle printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Wed May 29, 2013 at 05:50:32 PM EST
We are honored to welcome Cynthia B. Astle as a guest front pager. She is project coordinator for United Methodist Insight, where this post first appeared. Astle was the first woman to be named Editor of the church's national newspaper, United Methodist Reporter, and went on to edit The Progressive Christian magazine. She is a certified spiritual director and a member of the United Methodist-founded monastic association, the Order of Saint Luke. -- FC

I often find myself uncertain of how to balance my twin vocations of spiritual director and journalist. For example, right now I'm struggling with the best way to deal with a bully -- in this case, the Institute for Religion and Democracy, known by its initials IRD.

Here's the scoop: On May 25, John Lomperis of the "Methodist Program" of IRD published a commentary on the demise of UMR Communications and the United Methodist Reporter. In said commentary, he saw fit to cast aspersions on two prior Reporter editors by name: my esteemed successor Robin Russell, and me.

Lomperis tied his critique of Robin directly to an article she had written about a documentary, "Renewal or Ruin," produced by the Rev. Steven Martin about the IRD's effect on The United Methodist Church. However, his critique of me comprises a toxic mix of unfair generalities and false assumptions.

Herewith his entire criticism:

Before Russell, the Reporter was edited by Cynthia Astle, who is hardly shy about her disdain for many evangelical United Methodists. Astle moved on to coordinate an online news project which promotes her liberal biases while including some token moderate and conservative guest contributors in an apparent attempt to attract a wider audience.

Since I don't read the IRD's website, my colleague Frederick Clarkson of Talk to Action alerted me to Lomperis' smear. Fred urged me to respond in the spirit of a book published some years ago, "Hard Ball on Holy Ground," written and edited by another colleague, Stephen L. Swecker, a Reporter co-worker and my former boss at The Progressive Christian magazine. Fred's approach, which I deeply respect and admire, is that calumnies like those produced by IRD should always be debunked and discredited.

Unfortunately, in balancing my roles as spiritual director and journalist, I had a problem in this instance. For all Lomperis's demeaning tone and aversion to the truth, he has one thing right: I have a bias. My bias is for the full gospel of Jesus Christ, which demands that we love God with all our heart, mind and strength, and that we love our neighbor as we love ourselves. I fully and freely confess that I regularly fail in the second part of this teaching because I have a very hard time loving those who perpetrate the kind of misinformation that is IRD's bread and butter. So yes, Lomperis is right that I am biased, but he got my bias all wrong.

Otherwise, Lomperis is wrong about everything in his attack. To set the record straight, United Methodist Insight isn't "my" online news publication; it's an educational project sponsored by a local congregation, St. Stephen UMC of Mesquite, TX. Its prominently displayed mission is to serve as a forum for the entire denomination to discern collectively God's will for the future of the global United Methodist Church. I do my best to select content from a range of viewpoints, but I do look more for people asking questions and identifying problems than for those retracing old conservative-liberal polarities. That's where I think the Emerging Church movement gives us a good example, because those old tit-for-tat battles obscure the world's profound needs that Christians are called to serve.

This educational forum benefits from some extraordinarily good United Methodist thinkers including many younger clergy such as the Rev. Jeremy Smith, the Rev. Becca Girrell Clark, and the Rev. Ben Gosden. Many of these folks have given UM Insight blanket permission to use their writings at will. And I do test their contributions using John Wesley's theological method to assess their interpretations of scripture by means of tradition, experience and reason. Were I to do otherwise, I am convinced that the spirit of Spurgeon M. Dunnam III, late Reporter editor who was schooled by Albert C. Outler himself, would visit like the ghosts of "A Christmas Carol" to terrify me into mending my ways.

John Lomperis' attack on me contains one outright misstatement: I don't hold "evangelicals" in disdain. Instead, it's IRD I hold in disdain in much the same way that Jesus disdained, even condemned, religious leaders of his day who misled people. I put the word "evangelicals" in quotes because in the past three decades it has come to mean something quite different from what it meant when I was growing up in the Methodist Church. I've always thought of myself as evangelical, since I am "hardly shy" about telling people that I think, speak, pray, and behave in certain ways because I follow Jesus, the Christ. Had Lomperis asked, I would have been glad to tell him this good news. But because of previous writings, I can't help wondering if he would have acknowledged that he had been wrong in his generalization?

These things said, I do have serious disagreements with the views of many people who wrap their divisive and harmful right-wing politics in the mantle of evangelicalism, as if all evangelicals think and act as they do. I also have theological disagreements with the interpretations of some who claim an evangelical identity, particularly as those views pertain to women's reproductive health and the acceptability of covenantal same-sex relationships. But I resist employing the kind of ad hominem attacks that IRD seems to prefer.

Now that I have fulfilled the urging of some friends and colleagues to reply to Lomperis' screed, I plan henceforth to regard IRD according to the spiritual counsel of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in his book, "Healing Anger: The Power of Patience from A Buddhist Perspective."

If you know that someone is speaking badly of you behind your back, and if you react to that negativity with a feeling of hurt or anger, then you yourself destroy your own peace of mind. ... There is a Tibetan expression that one should treat such things as if they were wind behind one's ear. In other words, brush it aside.

It turns out, to borrow from Mark Twain, that the death of the United Methodist Reporter has been greatly exaggerated.

Cynthia Astle reports that UMR has a new digital life and new, Methodist owners who happen to be entrepreneurs in the digital age.

The new digital Reporter won't have a central physical location, but will be operated "from wherever we are with our computers," said Rev. Voorhees.

"One of the reasons we think we can make this work is because we don't have the kind of overhead that UMR Communications had, being anchored in printing," Rev. Voorhees told UM Insight. "It's sad that UMR is one of the casualties of the downfall of the print industry, but that's the fact."

by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Jun 13, 2013 at 05:13:07 PM EST

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