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COMMENTARY: What’s with Methodists and controversial issues? Buzz Stevens, Jun 3, 2010
By Buzz Stevens Special Contributor
Most of you may be more knowledgeable than I about the legacy of Methodism but it won’t hurt to be reminded of it again.
Some of you might be interested in knowing something about the founder of the Methodist movement. I’ve learned bits and pieces of John Wesley’s gutsy efforts to deal with social justice matters in his day but I’d never quite put them all together.
He dealt with oppressed children who were forced to work 12-hour days and miners who labored under horrific, dehumanizing union-less conditions in the 18th century. He is credited in history books for having helped to avert a nationwide rebellion through those courageous endeavors.
The noted maverick took on the issue of rampant drunkenness in London and he may have been hated and reviled over that cause more than others. Ale went for a penny a pint, a good price for the destitute but a horrendous cost to their lives and families.
Wesley addressed the appalling conditions of the prison system that were acceptable in the eyes of the general public.
The passionate leader put 200,000 miles on his horses throughout the British Isles and later expanded his ministries to America. Not many founders of religious movements made their presence and ideas known like Wesley on such a cosmic scale. He’s still featured in the Guinness Book of World Records for the horseback mileage he covered in his day.
A quote from a biography of Wesley by C.E. Vulliamy describes what it might have called out of Methodists who dared to follow his lead. “It is a proof of the irresistible vitality of the Methodist movement, that neither danger, violence, nor intimidation had the slightest effect upon its advance. The number of people who were frightened away from Methodism was exceedingly small; the number of those who were gained by the Methodist example of courage... and above all by the superb coolness of Wesley himself, was exceedingly great.”
Wesley was also an ardent opponent of slavery. The Methodist church was one of the largest faith communities in the country in the 1840s when the controversy over slavery exploded. One in four citizens in America called themselves Methodists back then. It would be hard to hide one’s denominational affiliation in that historic period. Our faith institution had a national, high profile image in that time that was not limited to region, class or race. It meant the members had to deal with the flak from the entire populace, a situation that is heating up today for Methodists over immigration and intensely so in our state.
When Wesleyan followers make nationwide headlines regarding hot issues in our day members in our churches can become embarrassed and angered over the media coverage if they are not aware of our history of taking on national or worldwide controversial issues. Part of that frustration is due to feeling stupid by not being informed before it breaks into the news or when neighbors bring it up.
We now have countless members in the Methodist fold who grew up in different faith communities whose ministries were locally or regionally based and not given to taking on national or global injustice issues. The congregations to which they belonged in the past were likely involved in outreach ministries that were pretty much limited to dealing with the needs of the disenfranchised in their immediate communities.
And few religious institutions go looking for highly controversial matters to tackle. We even have an agency based in Washington, D.C., that is given to searching for evidence of injustice worldwide. When those of other faiths join Methodist congregations they are likely to not have a historical grasp of how we do ministry in the context of an entire culture or an entire planet. It will not make sense to them.
There is a great mistrust of our congressional leaders, state and federal, who have refused to take stands, so perhaps frustrated citizens and faith community members feel their sentiments are being flat-out ignored like never before. It may be that when that happens, anger sets in and people lash out at their congregational leaders who fail to make known where they are on controversial matters.
Frankly, I was very reticent to take the lead on political conflicts as a pastor. I did some demonstrating and preaching on a few heated topics, but never enough.
Bill Moyers, a Baptist no less, ended a commencement address three years ago at Southern Methodist University on the subject of Methodism by proclaiming the following: “No institution has done more to shape America’s moral imagination. If America is going to be fixed, I believe someone with this [Methodist] DNA will be needed to do it. It’s possible.”
We shouldn’t have to have a Baptist remind us of that. We Methodists don’t get known for that kind of ministry when we remain localized or even regionalized faith communities. Dr. Moyers might have been admitting that Baptists can’t fix a country like Methodists can.
We might have to risk being tarred and feathered as our founding leader and followers experienced by angry citizens, but we made it this far because our church ancestors sacrificed in cultural and global arenas to get us here. What do we owe them?
The Rev. Stevens is a retired United Methodist pastor who is currently living in Phoenix, Ariz. Excerpted from his blog, buzzstevens.net.