PhoneGate at GC2008: free cellphones? [bad.hack]

A bad.hack (read more about it here) is a manipulation of a Christian system either using illicit means to achieve an end, or achieving goals that leave the system worse off and less open than before. Read on for the hack!

MethoFolks, listen up. This is a big post. I've got plenty of links and information regarding the PhoneGate at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, a controversy surrounding the gifts of cell phones to African delegates from a Renewal group with an implicit exchange for their votes.

Read the UMNS news service report today on a Renewal Group handing out free cell phones to delegates with guides on who to vote for for Judicial Council.

Delegates and church officials attending General Conference are wondering if democratic processes have been compromised because a renewal group provided some African and some Filipino delegates with cell phones.

The Renewal and Reform Coalition created myriad conversations among delegates, church leaders and visitors after they learned that the Confessing Movement, Good News/Renew, Transforming Congregations and UMAction provided free cell phones to more than 150 African delegates to use during the General Conference.

Some delegates and officials expressed concern that the coalition is trying to sway the votes of African delegates who are typically more conservative than their U.S. counterparts. They fear the coalition might use the phones to offer suggestions on how to vote on particular issues.
INCREDIBLE!! They purchased cell phones and gave them to delegates, "no string attached."

I'm with GC Blogger in that this just smells fishy...and not good cooked fish, but raw stinky fish. And yes, Jim...FAIL.

I'm not the only one smelling the stink. Here's a relevant response from an ethics monitoring team:
A joint monitoring team from the Commission on the Status and Role of Women and the Commission on Religion and Race said the giveaway “is inappropriate behavior and it destroys community. We have gathered for Christian conferencing, which requires trust, honesty, openness and respect. Whenever there is an imbalance of power relationships with the expectation of reciprocity, this behavior gives the appearance of paternalism, manipulation, exploitation and of course, racism."
However, it seems to get much worse!

The GC2008 blog linked to the Daily-Kos affiliated blog StreetProphets post with video and images of the offending incidents that claims the cell phones came with a list of people to vote for, and information that who to vote for will be text-messaged to delegates during conference.

Here's the video (from StreetProphets):

However, StreetProphets erroneously credits the IRD solely with this scheme, but it was a joint effort among all the Renewal groups. I was handed a Good News written response to the controversy which claims "a cell phone is just a cell phone."
It is demeaning to the African Delegates to think that a gift of a cell phone would change their vote. They are highly educated, aware of issues, and supremely principled in their beliefs; and to think that the gift of a cell phone would change their view is demeaning to them. ...the Rev. James Heidinger, president and published of Good News, [said] "We believe that equal access to techno0logy helps create a more just and equitable playing field."
Finally, Will Green, a delegate from New England, also mentioned this:
Another member of the New England delegation - Ralph - was granted the floor for a moment of personal privilege and requested the Commission on General Conference form an Ethics Committee to address such crises as this. It was seconded and passed by a hand count (in other words, it wasn't close)!
That sounds brilliant. You need an established body of people to decide whether censure or condemnation is needed in an official capacity. Personally, I think it should have happened at GC2004 when the renewal groups said the UMC was splitting and that they speak for the church....

But I digress. This is hacking Christianity, right?
So, what kind of hack is this?
  • An offering of hospitality to delegates whose international citizenship would make it difficult to purchase a cell phone?
  • Or a gift with no explicit strings attached, but with the means and method to influence votes at General Conference?
I guess I'm troubled mostly by the text-message thing: to send text messages on the floor to delegates while they are supposed to be in Holy Conferencing and listening only to the Spirit of God seems really antithetical to the whole thing.

If that proves true, then I would call this a bad.hack, one that uses a system of acceptable gifts and abuses those acceptable gifts to influence delegates while they are supposed to be listening to the Spirit of God. There's some more debate of this here on Matthew Kelley's blog.

But still, giving of "gifts" especially to those from third-world (hate that term) and developing nations (better) just reeks of, in the words of the UMNS article, colonist mentality that gives gifts with an implicit exchange of reciprocity. That sort of mentality has no place in a global Methodist church.

Sigh. I'm torn. What are your thoughts?
  • Is a cell phone just a cell phone? A gift of hospitality to our overseas friends?
  • Or is a cell phone an abuse of a system that seduces good Christian people to listen to a cell phone rather than the Spirit of God?


Anonymous,  April 28, 2008 at 7:50 AM  

I believe this whole thing is way overblown. I thought all cell-phones and laptops were not allowed on the floor of General Conference? If so how can this influence any votes? A gift is a gift...leave it at that.
All the distrust on both sides shows how far we really are from "holy conferencing."

jimmorrow April 28, 2008 at 8:00 AM  

Well, anonymous, I'm not sure that a "gift is a gift" if we are soliciting votes that way.


I'm torn here. I really don't know enough about to know what's really going on. I know what I know based on the photographs of the original docs.

I will say this: I think that it was a very kind gesture to think of these folks. It is just unfortunate that it had that election caveat attached to it....

OCtrainrider April 28, 2008 at 8:14 AM  

it is sad that they spent the money just for a certain group. The amount of money they spent to buy cell phones they could have used to feed the poor.

You have to know that this happens on both sides.It just so happens that one side got caught.

James L,  April 28, 2008 at 11:42 AM  

Thanks for considering both sides of the "Phonegate" issue. I'll just say up front that I'm very sympathetic to the Renewal and Reform Coalition in general. Here's what I think:

- Caucus groups of various viewpoints can and should be able to publish lists of recommended candidates and votes on issues. This has long been done.

- Caucus groups should be able to give gifts of hospitality to whomever they want.

- That said, the attaching of vote lists to the free gifts DID cross a line; they failed to be "above reproach" in this instance, because to some people it does smell of tit-for-tat. However, think that for the majority of those who received cell phones, they appreciated it and it did not change the way they would normally be led to vote.


- Next time, perhaps a more official GC group should ensure that all visiting delegates have working communication devices? [I wasn't aware that they weren't supposed to be operating on the floor - is that so?]

blake April 28, 2008 at 3:01 PM  

this is troubling to me. you can call it whatever you want, a harmless gift of hospitality, or whatever. but the giving of such "gifts" attached with a voting list is deeply unethical in my opinion and i think the intention of swaying persons by "playing nice" is blatantly obvious.

aside from all that, this flys in the face of everything general conference, the UMC, and the message of jesus are supposed to be about. it's sad that persons are so hell bent on making power plays and hijacking the process.

i would expect this of our governments, but i wish people who claim to follow the way of jesus could transcend that, at least a litte.

Bitty April 29, 2008 at 11:34 AM  

Keep in mind a few things: 1), GC is overwhelming to new delegates who flew in from Chicago, much less delegates who travel three days, suffer from jetlag, and have linguistic challenges to overcome with often inadequate translation. The need to connect with other delegates from their countries or continents can't be emphasized enough. It's easy for white guys sitting at laptops to question whether international delegates need basic communication access. Could you function for two weeks at General Conference without a cell phone? What if General Conference was held in Liberia? Do you know if it would even work there? Once there, where would you go to get one? 2) There are countless accounts of people using cellphones on the floor to text, many from delegates themselves. 3) Have you actually spoken to any Central Conference delegates who've received one? Consider gleaning firsthand information before forming opinions that deal with their welfare and their character. 4) Many Central Conference delegates are outraged that anyone would think they could be bought. That is imperialist thinking. It is condescending and offensive.
I propose going without a phone or a computer for just two days, and then rethink your judgments on others.
It also deeply bothers me that rapid pigeonholing takes place in what's supposed to be a situation infused with holy conferencing. Why would people assume renewal groups would have power-gaining motivations? Have you actually read Good News magazine - like the issue dedicated to persecuted Christians around the globe, or the article on the importance of Christian stewardship of the environment, or the numerous pages dedicated to fighting HIV/AIDS?
But hey, better return all those gift bags and free pencils and hospitality items available in the display hall, because a lot of those agencies sponsor petitions and resolutions, so, yikes, your vote just got bought by a GBGM mousepad.

Rev. Jeremy Smith April 29, 2008 at 11:54 AM  

Hello bitty, welcome to the blog! A few things:

I have zero problem with the distribution of cell phones to delegates. Zero. If GC2012 distributed cell phones, if the caucus and renewal groups distributed cell phones, that's fine. I wouldn't last a day in Liberia at GC2016, and I would certainly want a cell phone that worked! Your many comments jump on assuming that I believe cell phones at GC is bad...that is not my position.

What is not fine is the implicit tit-for-tat that comes from the cell phones being BOXED with Judicial Council requested votes. That is evidenced in the video, and is not disputed from the CC delegates who got them. Being given a substantial gift of a cell phone with requested support taped to the phone is radically different from getting a bottle of water with "keep membership open" or a mousepad with "support GBGM" on it.

We saw at GC2008 that every single one of the R&R's nominees was not elected, and I think the results speak for themselves on how displeased the delegates were with this action.

Finally, I do know of the good works that Good News has done throughout the world. They should stick to their strengths of all the causes you mentioned, and stay away from political machinations, because, clearly, they aren't that good at it.

John Warrener April 30, 2008 at 6:40 AM  

I think secretly sending in hostile operatives to spy on the black African delegates and video their meeting and publishing it on Youtube is a far more reprehensible act than openly offering common communication devices to foreign delegates. Let’s see if the Ethics Committee investigates these CIA type actions on the part of UM liberals. Strange irony; the Renewal Coalition detractors acting like the very thing of which they accuse the Renewal group…or is it revealing of their detractor’s egregious hypocrisy.

Rev. Jeremy Smith April 30, 2008 at 10:32 AM  


I think you are perhaps unaware that sending people to caucus group gatherings and audiotaping the exactly what the IRD / Good News movement does. I've personally observed audio recordings of events held by caucus groups, and I hardly find this situation substantially different.

As well, for clarity, this wasn't a meeting of African was an open meeting. If you read through the materials that were uploaded, none of the "events" where the cell phones were distributed were private events.

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