John Wesley’s political views are documented among pamphlets, sermons, and the works of biographers, but they are not necessarily as well-known as other aspects of his life. Perhaps the most concise summary of early Methodism was to reform the nation, the church, and to spread scriptural holiness. This mission, I believe, is deeply political.
So, what is the best way to reform a nation?
In some general comments on Wesley’s ethics, John Lunn notes that:
In most cases, Wesley appealed to people, either individually or as members of groups, to act out of love for God and for neighbor. He did not urge structural changes in either society or government, and usually did not urge passage of specific legislation… Wesley believed government authority was derived from God rather than from the people, so he supported the constitutional monarchy of Eighteenth Century England. While he was a strong advocate for the poor, he refused to align himself with many of the political reformers of the day. An important exception to this emphasized [in the book John Wesley's Social Ethics] involves the issue of slavery. Wesley supported the efforts of Wilberforce and other anti-slavery leaders. In general, though, Wesley relied on the efforts of individuals as organized in societies and on the art of persuasion and exhortation to effect change.
I’ve heard it argued that Wesley did not view the government as the keeper of morality, which is something that would be hard to grasp for any contemporary mainstream political party. Even though he personally supported the English monarchy, this was not his central focus for ethics. Instead, the church must act as a holy witness to the world. This is obviously where Anabaptists find great resonance with the Wesleyan tradition. Ecclesiology, or how we formulate the politic of the church, is absolutely crucial for how we Christians live and act in the world. Reforming the nation comes through the work of Christians with strangely warmed hearts, doing odd things like visiting the imprisoned, protesting industrialism, and caring for widows.
A classic question of political theory is how to explain societal ailments. More often than not, this question is answered with an either/or framework: either individuals are at fault, or broken social systems cause the problems. Generally speaking, ideological conservatives will focus on the individual while ideological liberals will focus on the system. Arguments such as welfare just gives a free handout to lazy people and the like fit into these very neat propositions. Laws, reforms, and/or structures are central, depending on where you stand.
I would say that most American Christians hold a trickle-down approach to social ethics that is intertwined with democracy. From the top of our government comes order and good. Either craft an indestructible system or elect highly moral individuals and you will have your problems fixed. Either give tax incentives for this or vote for laws that prohibit that, and true progress will supposedly come.
But Wesleyan theology has long been recognized as a theology for the common, plain person. It was (and hopefully continues to be) a grassroots effort rooted in the conversion experience and witness of laity. Because of his focus on personal and communal acts as a means to transform society, I see Wesley as advocating for a ground-up approach to social ethics. In empowering others to act in neighbor-love, God’s Spirit changes the world around us. The answer comes not from creating righteous individuals or agencies through human-made efforts. Peace and reconciliation spring forth from the ground of the body of Christ.
What does all of this mean given what has been going on this week?
Protests continue to happen across the country over unaccompanied minors at our nation’s borders. Palestinian and Israeli blood continues to flow in an ever-mounting conflict fueled by billions of dollars of firepower and complex social, religious, and historical dynamics. Our world is a mess.
The message we send as a church regarding these conflicts matters. Our witness could lead to the reformation of our world. Will that message be that of the sword? Or will it be of compassion?