Responsively Yours: Evangelism and Social Justice

Responsively Yours: Evangelism and Social Justice
Harriett J. Olson

It seems as if ever since John Wesley’s day, Methodists and United Methodists have tried to marshal Mr. Wesley’s vast writings to speak to the place of both evangelism and social justice in the Wesleyan tradition.

Of course, he didn’t actually use either expression, at least not often. Perhaps that’s good. It gives us a chance to look at Mr. Wesley’s writings and practices to see what emerges.

It is not apparent from Mr. Wesley’s writings that he differentiated very much between “doing all the good you can” to mean direct service as opposed to advocating for just systems. His work simply does not support valuing one more highly than the other. For Mr. Wesley, love of God was seen in love of neighbor and both grow ever deeper in the process of sanctification.

In Mr. Wesley’s day many members of the Methodist classes and bands were neither literate, nor were many of the preachers particularly well educated or well connected. It would have been quite odd for Mr. Wesley to ask the Methodist societies to call on or write to members of parliament.

However, he himself wrote to political leaders. One of Mr. Wesley’s final letters was to William Wilberforce, encouraging him to persist in fighting to end the slave trade. Mr. Wesley also abstained from drinking tea as a form of anti-slavery protest.

Mr. Wesley regularly called on the members of the Methodist societies, no matter what their social class, to give what they could. The penny collection supporting the operation of the New Room in Bristol, a place for preaching that also housed a library, a clinic and food distribution, is just one example.

He also expected members to be directly connected to people in need. Mr. Wesley was impelled in this direction by the great social pain of his time as industrialization broke down the pre-existing social fabric. However, he also instructed members not just to send gifts, but also to visit people who were poor, sick and in prison for the good of the members’ own souls.

It seems as if Mr. Wesley saw these visits as a means of grace, a way in which the faithful invite God to work in their hearts, to continue the redemption of their souls.

Of course, Mr. Wesley, the band of preachers and all of the members of the society were engaged in announcing, repeating and reminding each other and all who would listen that God’s grace is available to all, and that each person is loved by God and is invited to communion with God.

United Methodist Women reflects this in its Purpose with the call to “experience freedom as whole persons through Jesus Christ.” We also represent and present the possibility of wholeness for each person whose life we touch — in our congregations, in our communities and wherever we are at work around the world.

Just to add a wonderful sort of twist — Mr. Wesley also talked about spreading the Gospel and warning listeners to “flee the wrath to come” as a “work of mercy.” By the witness to God’s love and their efforts to ensure that persons would be “saved to the uttermost,” the believer was offering compassionate service to their sisters and brothers.

How interesting! We are much more likely to talk about feeding, clothing and sheltering people as “works of mercy” and to think about our witness to God’s vital presence as a “work of piety.”

What would happen if we thought about these activities from Mr. Wesley’s point of view?

If we visit people in prison or go on a mission trip, are we opening our hearts to be broken anew, to see God in one another or to understand the urgency of God’s work in the world?

Are we opening our minds to important questions about how these beloved children of God end up trapped by addiction, violence, hatred, illness or bad choices?

Perhaps we can deepen in both the love of God and the love of neighbor by shifting our thinking about what is transforming us and what is compassionate service.

Harriett Jane Olson
General Secretary
United Methodist Women

Posted or updated: 3/31/2010 11:00:00 PM
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