From Inclusion To Liberation

photo credit: “Privilege” by Rev. Alex da Silva Souto, Beira, Mozambique.

photo credit: “Privilege” by Rev. Alex da Silva Souto, Beira, Mozambique.

We have arrived. The inclusion that many of us have sought for so long has been realized…

And now let us strive strenuously to queer that inclusion. Because it isn’t good enough.

I was among those invited to attend the recent UMCNext gathering of “centrists and progressives,” people for whom the passage of the so-called “Traditional” Plan was the final straw (and, for too many, also the first straw). And I will say this with complete sincerity: it felt different to be at a mainstream United Methodist gathering knowing that most people did not hate me for being queer. That felt new and nice. It was a welcome shift.

We who are LGBTQIA+ were included in UMCNext. But into what?

This is what inclusion looked like, as compared with the intersectional approach of the Our Movement Forward summit in Minneapolis just a few days prior:

  • Secrecy. UMCNext conveners enforced “confidentiality” with the stated intention of protecting those whose participation might make them somehow vulnerable. In stark contrast, when Our Movement Forward gathered in Minneapolis—centering the voices and perspectives of persons of color, queer, and trans people (POC+Q+T), who know a little something about vulnerability—all plenary sessions were livestreamed and remain publicly available. The next iteration of Methodism need not be closeted.

  • Isolation. In an apparent effort to give every table a flavor of diversity, POC+Q+T persons were isolated from one another. Tables were assigned to be “inclusive” in such a way that it was standard for there to be one LGBTQIA+ person and one person of color per table, along with a bunch of cisgender-heterosexual (cis-het), white people. Many of the cis-het participants were perfectly lovely, kind individuals. But the emotional labor required when asked to be the sole representative of a marginalized identity (or identities) is immense (and absurd and impossible). One corrective would be to build into the process the ability for minoritized groups to caucus in order to strategize, support one another, and collectively bargain. That demand was denied at every turn by the UMCNext convening team. Our inclusion was according to their terms, not ours.

  • Imperialism. Under the system of colonial control that crucified Jesus, imperium was the ability to exact one’s will, symbolized by fasces, a bundle of rods bound around an axe (from which the word ‘fascism’ is derived). This capacity was held by the emperor, who then deputized others to enforce his control. UMCNext may be more inclusive than UMCNow, but the commitment to the preservation of power and control by the already privileged is palpable. Our Movement Forward summit created space to reimagine a church where power is shared within a framework of mutual accountability. UMCNext forced us around tables over which we had no choice, asked limiting questions that restricted imagination, centered leaders who have already failed and undermined us, was carefully scripted so to gloss over differences that matter, and completely ignored the collective wisdom of justice-seeking resistance movements. In short, it repeated the imperialist framework of the UMC as it already is. “Inclusive” imperialism is still evil.

  • Vacant theology. I could not tell you what was the theological grounding of UMCNext. Our Movement Forward summit foregrounded a gospel-centered vision of liberation with clear commitments to resisting evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves, among which are racism, white supremacy, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, colonialism, and environmental degradation. Such commitments were addressed openly and specifically. At UMCNext, I heard over and over that, if liberationist perspectives were named and claimed, many people would not be able to handle it. This is a lie. We already know that watered-down Methodism is death. Alternatively, we who teach and preach Good News in radical solidarity know that we do not need to play to the lowest common denominator for the sake of false unity. Instead, we are called to follow the model of Jesus, who simultaneously proclaimed uncomfortable truths and did the hard work of relationship building. We can too.

  • Erasure. In his final plenary address, Rev. Adam Hamilton remarked that some are asking, “How long will we have to stay and resist?” There was zero attention paid, honor given, or learning from those who have already been resisting in the UMC for decades. It is a welcome relief that many “centrists and progressives” are finally ready to fight back, but the evil did not begin with the “Traditional” Plan, and the resistance to it will not be new. Our Movement Forward summit began with Rev. Dr. Traci West inviting us to reflect on the histories of freedom struggles that inform and inspire us into the present. We do not do this work alone, nor do we begin it afresh. We are drawn into and carry on legacies of liberation. When the final straw is also the first straw, it is time to step back and learn from those who have already been doing the work. UMCNext may have erased these histories, even after one participant stood and requested that they be named, but the opportunity for something new to break forth would not be possible were it not for the POC+Q+T and allied liberationists who have kept showing up to claim and proclaim the truth that will set us free.

We have been told and will be told again to be nice and play along. We have been told and will be told again that we are hurting our cause when we critique the structures of power under which we are only ever included according to predetermined terms. We have been told and will be told again that there are, in fact, gay and lesbian people at the table (limited identities intentional), as if to suggest that gays and lesbians cannot themselves be prone to striving after their own power and privilege.

Instead of asking to be included at the table, can we not dismantle the damn table already? We can find new ways to relate to one another if we do that work differently, as POC+Q+T and allied visionaries are already modeling. Our Movement Forward summit insisted that the process is as important as the outcome, if not more so, because we cannot keep including people within the same old structures and expect different results.

UMCNext might have been more inclusive than the status quo, but it already has and will continue to produce exclusions because it is being built for the preservation of power and prestige, not for the sake of embodying the gospel of collective liberation.

So how do we do things differently? How do we move from inclusion to liberation? No single person, event, or movement can contain all of the energy, creativity, and wisdom necessary to bring about freedom for all. But here are some of the foundational ideas and commitments I have been learning from liberationists in and beyond the UMC:

  • Liberation is non-negotiable. Inclusion is the easier ask, but inclusion into oppressive structures will not make us free. We do not need more seats at the table. It is time to leave the table and follow those who already know what liberation looks and feels like.

  • Divest. When organizations prioritize inclusion over liberation, one way to register dissent is to divest from them. Resources of time, energy, and money can then be reinvested in support of persons and groups who are modeling ways of being that are relational, strategic, and uncompromising in commitment to the freedom and dignity of all.

  • Mutual accountability. Know who your people are. Who will support you and hold you accountable, especially for the moments when you are too tired or scared or cannot do it alone? We cannot do it alone. Connect intentionally and regularly with your people. Learn from each other. Nourish one another. Challenge one another to live out your values and commitments. And then draw upon that energy to reengage, resist, and seek to transform oppressive systems and spaces.

  • Radical solidarity. Recognize power and privilege. Take stock of who and what is considered “normal,” and when you have access to such social status, in any ways, take action to give up privilege and to share power. Cultivate attitudes and practices that not only turn your attention to the margins but lead you to participate actively in the struggle. Move to the margins as Jesus did. Be willing to take bold risks in solidarity with those who are harmed, marginalized, exploited, and erased.

We do not need queer inclusion. We need to Queer inclusion, to resist and transform relations of power such that the next expressions of Methodism are not defined by accountability to the system but to one another.

What are you willing to do for the sake of collective liberation?

Rev. Dr. Tyler Schwaller

Rev. Tyler Schwaller