Pursuing Justice and Living Justly: A Wesleyan Perspective

Christine D. Pohl

Numerous scholars have explored Wesleyan contributions to social reform and justice concerns, noting the complex history and multiple trajectories (cf., e.g., D. Dayton, R. Heitzenrater, T. Jennings, R. Maddox, M. Marquardt, M. Meeks, T. Smith, and R. Stone). John Wesley himself was remarkable for his commitments and practical efforts to improve conditions for poor people, slaves, and prisoners. Especially if definitions of justice center on attending to basic human needs, equal regard, and helping people become full participants in community, Wesley’s contributions were significant.

In Sources of the Self, the philosopher, C. Taylor, observed: “Moral sources empower. To come closer to them, to have a clearer view of them, to come to grasp what they involve is for those who recognize them to be moved to love and respect them, and through this love/respect to be better enabled to live up to them” ([Harvard University Press, 1989] 96). In my teaching and research, Wesley’s writings and legacy, along with portions of the subsequent Wesleyan tradition, have become a powerful moral resource. They have significantly affected my understandings and practice of social responsibility and efforts at justice. Several features of Wesley’s approach to social concerns are particularly helpful to contemporary Christian reflection on our efforts at justice.

A Willingness to See and Name Injustice and Evil at Multiple Levels

In reading Wesley’s sermons, treatises, and journal entries about the desperate needs of impoverished persons, it is surprising how often he wrote that he had seen their situation “with his own eyes.” In contrast to the individuals around him who denied, understated, or deliberately overlooked the misery of a substantial part of the population, Wesley was willing to see it, take it seriously, and bring it to the attention of others. Furthermore, he frequently attempted to identify causal factors, asking inconvenient and awkward questions about why some people were starving or why the slave trade was flourishing. Never one to mince words, he was then willing to call to account anyone and everyone that he believed had a hand in perpetuating the injustice or misery.

Though rudimentary, Wesley’s efforts at social and economic analysis are striking (cf. Thoughts on the Present Scarcity of Provisions). He never assumed, however, that analysis was enough. Abstract discussions about the causes of poverty were important, but action was required even if it did not solve the entire problem. In response to widespread destitution, Wesley mapped out substantive and sweeping recommendations; he called for changes to tax policy, prohibition of distilling, and ending of the monopolization of farms. At the same time, he also suggested immediate changes at the personal and local level that would help to alleviate some of the distress.

Wesley described the situation he saw around him—a deadly combination of spiritual apathy, social complacency, greed, oppression, and alienation—as “complicated evil” or “complicated misery.” He called the spiritual and social heartlessness that allowed neighbors to go hungry while others had resources “complicated wickedness.” The use of “complicated” for Wesley was a way of getting at the complex interrelation of spiritual and social death, and at the connections between personal and structural evil (cf. C. Pohl, “Practicing Hospitality in the Face of ‘Complicated Wickedness’,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 42 [2007] 11-15). For Wesley, social analysis and broad prophetic denunciations of injustice were accompanied by very particular attention to how individual lifestyles contributed to the problem. He challenged his people to open their eyes to the consequences of their own complacency. By being careless or self-indulgent with their resources, they were missing the opportunity to help others while they were also putting their own spiritual wellbeing at risk.

Building Friendships and Bridging Social Divisions

In his sermon, “On Visiting the Sick,” Wesley observed, “One great reason why the rich, in general, have so little sympathy for the poor is because they so seldom visit them. Hence it is that…one part of the world does not know what the other suffers. Many of them do not know, because they do not care to know: they keep out of the way of knowing it; and then plead their voluntary ignorance as an excuse for their hardness of heart” (The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed. [1872] Sage Digital Library (hereafter JWW) Vol. 7, Sermon XCVIII, 141).

His frequent advice to “visit the poor” may sound to our ears rather paternalistic, but Wesley understood better than most people that significant social and personal change occurs at the level of interpersonal relationships. Visiting, small groups, and “holy” conversation all contributed to a notable bridging of social distinctions in the early Methodist communities. The practice of visiting also allowed Wesley and other Methodists to gain a clear picture of pressing needs, and they were thus better equipped to respond with innovative programs and small-scale institutions that could be helpful.

Relationships of mutual respect and accountability with persons in need are not a “nice extra” if we have the time, they are at the heart of any efforts at justice, advocacy, or reform. G. Gutierrez offers a similar insight when he discusses various dimensions of liberation. In addition to transformation at the structural level and at the level of individual human sin, he describes a dimension that is connected to friendship, gestures, and solidarity (A Theology of Liberation, rev. ed. [Orbis, 1988] xxxviii). Without real friendship with those in difficult circumstances, advocacy and advocates are strangely detached from the very persons they intend to help. Such detachment reinforces social difference, tendencies toward paternalism, and the destructive notion that all of the resources and wisdom flow in a single direction.

Pursuing Justice Begins with Personal Lifestyle Choices

Wesley located himself squarely within the teachings of the ancient Christian tradition when he insisted that any resources we have beyond necessity or possibly convenience belong to the poor. For Wesley, the difficult problem of destitution in the midst of plenty could be solved readily—by a voluntary redistribution of resources. If Christians would be content to live simply, they would have ample resources to share. Holding on to more than was needed or used literally stole life from others. Wesley wrote that many brothers and sisters, the “beloved of God, have not food to eat; they have not raiment to put on…. And why are they thus distressed? Because you impiously, unjustly, and cruelly detain from them what your Master and theirs lodges in your hands on purpose to supply their wants” (JWW, Vol. 7, Sermon CXVI: Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity, 320).

This teaching has rarely been warmly received or readily embraced, but the personal choices we make about resources and money are a powerful, if troublesome, indicator of how we understand normative social and economic relations. Wesley was willing to point out the uncomfortable connections between indulgent lifestyles and the ongoing misery of others. We can see ourselves as part of a web of relationships and resources in which we have responsibilities beyond ourselves and our immediate families or we can view ourselves as self-made agents who can afford to spend our money in any way we choose. A willingness to live as faithful stewards of the resources to which we have access opens up a very different way to understand both charity and justice. Reorienting our thinking from viewing ourselves as “owners” to understanding ourselves as “conduits” does not necessarily tell us how resources should be distributed, but it does demand that we see resource allocation—even at the personal level—as an issue of justice.

Gifting Grace in Efforts at Justice

When Wesley argued that works of mercy are a “real means of grace,” he was recovering another important insight from the ancient tradition that infuses charitable and justice-oriented activities with a particular and life-giving spirituality (cf. On Visiting the Sick, 139). Social ministry, Wesley had found, was not only helpful to the recipients; those who engaged in it experienced growth in grace and holiness, along with increased sensitivity to the needs and insights of those around them.

Often our efforts at justice and social ministry are driven by a sense of duty or obligation, but when they are viewed as a grace-filled way of life that gives life to all involved, they are more likely to be fruitful, respectful, sustainable, and joy-filled. It is easy to make little forays into areas of need and to offer scathing denunciations of injustice if they are not attached to sacrificial personal choices. But to live justly as we pursue justice depends on grace—grace to stay with the challenging tasks, grace that allows for mutual transformation.

We are often tempted to make artificial divisions between justice and charity, or piety and social reform. While clearly distinguishable from one another, these practices are not at odds, and when held together, they represent some of the fullness of God’s purposes for a people who will tackle current issues of justice with grace, discernment, and holy passion.

Posted Mar 01, 2009