When Jesus Stirs It Up: An Interview with M. Garlinda Burton

M. Garlinda Burton has served the United Methodist Church in different capacities for 35 years. She was top executive of the UMC’s Commission on the Status and Role of Women from 2003-2012 and today provides educational materials for the denomination’s Commission on Religion and Race. She is also a writer and editor, a United Methodist deaconess, and director of the Nashville Freedom School Partnership.

On the problem of playing nice …

In so many churches, we think we are clear about where we stand on racial justice and racial inclusion. We talk about “welcoming the stranger” and “the least of these.” But for years we’ve been very cerebral about it. We assumed we all agree that these are good things, and didn’t push beneath the polite surface. Now, we look around and discover that we’ve not lived out these fine things we espouse.

And not everyone who goes to church with us even agrees we should include people who are not like us. We’re discovering there are people in our congregations who have been quietly resistant to racial inclusion all along – quiet until now. We’re at a point where we need to talk frankly about what we can agree on and still be a church. Remind ourselves what we believe biblically and doctrinally.

For a long time we’ve played nice with each other and felt good about sometimes electing people of color in positions of leadership. But how many mainline congregations are really integrated with regard to race or class? How many sermons do we actually hear each year about racism or white privilege? We’re getting further and further from living a faith that invades our real life. What’s missing are relationships that come out of real conversations. We depend on social media to do our grunt work when we weigh in against racial or class prejudice.

We need something deeper and more prophetic than that. A prophetic message from the pulpit doesn’t always have to be thunder from Isaiah. What might be needed now is the message that we – all sides – need to listen to the voices among us that are dissenting from us. Seek relationships that build trust enough to talk face to face.

On the value of struggling together …

How can church deepen its relationships? I believe it means urging preachers to preach on hard subjects and holding Bible studies on hard passages. Have conversations and worship all through the week, not just Sundays. People with opposing views would have supper together. We need to eat with folk down the street. Invite a mixed group of police officers to talk about street violence, race, and class. Worship with a church from another neighborhood where people have a vastly difference socio-economic and cultural reality than the people in my church. People would start building personal relationships. Christians should worship, have conversations, pray, and struggle together.

There are some conservatives I trust more than some of my liberal friends because of a close personal bond I’ve formed with them. We don’t just pontificate or push our points of view; we also talk about our families and the struggle to be faithful. We will disagree about guns or marriage equality but we speak from the heart, with mutual respect. It’s not an ideological relationship. It’s a relationship. We don’t agree most of the time, but we are willing to walk together.

On writing a new history …

There are two sides to a lot of issues, including the debate about who should own guns and why. Christians can reasonably argue about that. But there are some things that we Christians should not “agree to disagree” about. There are non-negotiables. Racism is a sin – non-negotiable. Sexism. You cannot claim to be a Christian and then vilify any child of God because you have a problem with their skin color, ethnicity, language, gender, or culture. You just can’t. We don’t make this clear enough in church. We’re all made in the image of God, and if we espouse any theology that otherizes another person, we’re flat out wrong. One problem is, we’ve created a version of Christianity that idolizes America, whiteness, and English. This idolatry is hard to face. There are times when we do need to choose between being a good American and being a good Christian.

Jesus is the son of God. He came to show us the love of God, save us, and sanctify us. He set a model for struggling with our humanity and striving for divinity – giving us the power to be reconciled and write a new story of faith that is not grounded in manifest destiny or “might makes right.” I think the Holy Spirit is with us and wants us to be better than we’ve been. We’re not perfect but we serve a perfect and ever-loving God. Whenever I see people coming together across lines, that’s Jesus stirring it up.