I spent a lot of time memorizing the 1996 and 2000 Social Principles. I needed to bolster my arguments with my high school boyfriend — a conservative Baptist on the debate team. Every time he brought up a social issue, I would go search the United Methodist Social Principles. I learned back then that I needed to bookmark a lot of different pages and hand-write in the cross-references. (If you want to read about health, for example, you have to look here and here and here and here. It can be hard to find what you want!)
While I never understood why the Social Principles were so disorganized, scattered, and repetitive, I accepted that this is the result of our piecemeal legislative process. I therefore expected that the proposed revision of the Social Principles, with its goal of becoming more succinct, globally relevant, and theologically grounded, would bring order to the chaos. Unfortunately, the proposed revision has made the scattered repetition even worse.
All United Methodists are invited to comment on the draft of the revised Social Principles. I encourage you to read through them and offer your feedback! I took about a week to reflect on the document and respond. The “this could take up to 20 minutes” caveat on the survey was way wrong for me! I’m sharing some of my thoughts, so that perhaps you can spend less than a week preparing your own responses 🙂
Overall, these Social Principles are an improvement over what we currently have — specifically in trying to move away from U.S.-centrism. But my biggest takeaway was around redundancy and repetition:
1. The irrelevance of a section called “The Global Community” (which overlaps with many previous categories — especially “The Political Community”) when one purpose of the revision is to make the entirety of the Social Principles globally relevant
2. Arbitrary structure dividing “The Nurturing Community” from “The Social Community” (resulting in frequent overlap and repetition between those categories) when the revision’s first purpose is to make the Social Principles more succinct
The effect of both points is that we repeatedly have statements on similar issues in two places rather than just one. And there are no cross-references between the two. Worse still, sometimes one statement is theologically grounded (the third stated goal of the revision) while the other one doesn’t mention God or faith at all. Combining and abridging the statements would help to ensure that every paragraph is grounded in God.
So, why is there so much repetition? Why are these sections divided?
It’s simple: the underlying structure of the Social Principles was set up by U.S. white males in 1972. This was prior to second-wave feminism and postcolonialism. Granted, these two social movements were underway — but that did not mean that the Church was listening to them. Even today the Church does not take seriously the voices of women, people of color, and people outside of the U.S.
The initial Social Principles Study Commission, established in 1968, did include women, notably “Mrs. Ted F. Baun” as secretary. They invited people such as “Mrs. Sarah B. Adam, Commission on Social Concerns, Monrovia, West Africa” to author papers. You can read their 1970 report here. But these moves toward inclusion did not change the dominant U.S. white male perspective. The effect was that we siloed women’s issues and global concerns. The social, political, and economic communities were the domain of U.S. men.
In the U.S. in 1968/1972, both church and society maintained a sharp distinction between the “private” and the “public.” In the UMC this became known as “The Nurturing Community” and “The Social Community.” This home/world distinction was a legacy of 19th century sex segregation: women belong at home and men belong at work. Poet Adrienne Rich summarizes this era as follows:
“By the end of the 1960s an autonomous movement of women was declaring that ‘the personal is political.‘ That statement was necessary because in other political movements of that decade the power relation of men to women, the question of women’s roles and men’s roles, had been dismissed — often contemptuously — as the sphere of personal life… Women were now talking about domination, not just in terms of economic exploitation, militarism, colonialism, imperialism, but within the family, in marriage, in child rearing… Breaking the mental barrier that separated private from public life felt in itself like an enormous surge toward liberation… Every aspect of her life was on the line. We began naming and acting on issues we had been told were trivial, unworthy of mention: rape by husbands or lovers; the boss’s hand groping the employee’s breast; the woman beaten in her home with no place to go… We pointed out that women’s unpaid work in the home is central to every economy…” (from “Blood, Bread, and Poetry”)
By the time I began debating with my high school boyfriend, that the personal is political (and its corollary: the personal is theological) had been explored in detail by womanist theologians, mujerista theologians, and feminist theologians. Boundaries were falling between “personal” and “public.” This showed in our Social Principles as topics began to be repeated in multiple sections. Gender norms, sexual exploitation, health and (dis)ability, and aging cannot be separated into discrete categories of “this is nurturing and this is social.” They are intrinsically tied! We cannot arbitrarily divide “The Nurturing Community” from “The Social Community.” These two sections need to be combined.
My concern about “The World Community” is similar. If we carry a global perspective throughout the Social Principles, we should not need to label a handful of categories as specifically “global.” When we name some sub-sections as “Global Health” or “Global Communication,” it implies that the previous sections on health and communication were not adequately global in scope. If so, we need to revise the previous sections to make them global.
Truly global perspectives throughout the Social Principles should make it irrelevant to separate one section out as The World Community. Fortunately, we now see this redundancy! In the revised Social Principles, there is substantial overlap between “The World Community” and “The Political Community.” Our revision is beginning to recognize that each country’s political community affects (and is affected by) the world community. Now we need to update our structure to better serve the improved content.
Our Social Principles need a new structure for a new era. Therefore, I propose the following structure to help the Social Principles become more succinct and globally relevant:
1. THE COMMUNITY OF ALL CREATION
(Keep this proposed category and subheadings exactly the same)
Ecosystems: Air, Water, Land, and Plant and Animal Life
Wisdom, Science, and Technology
2. LOVING COMMUNITIES
(combination of The Nurturing Community & The Social Community)
Preface [combining the Prefaces of The Nurturing Community & The Social Community]
Race, Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity [combining “Culture and Identity” and “Rights of Racial and Ethnic Communities”]
Gender [combining “Gender Equality,” “Rights of Persons of All… Gender Identities,” “Rights of Women and Girls,” “Rights of Men and Boys”]
Relationships [combining “Family,” “Marriage and Divorce,” “Children and Young People,” “Bullying,” “Sexual Exploitation and Violence”]
Human Sexuality [combining “Human Sexuality” and “Rights of Persons of All Sexual Orientations…”] [this hopefully will be able to be combined with the above categories on Gender & Relationships, but for now what this section would contain is a big question mark]
Diverse Abilities [combining “Full Inclusion of Differently-Abled Persons” and “Persons with Disabilities”]
Communication [combining “Media and Communication Technology” and “Global Communication” — which was originally from The World Community]
Health [combining “Right to Healthcare,” “Addictions and Substance Abuse,” “Medical and Genetic Experimentation,” “Organ Transplantation and Donation,” “Reproductive Health,” and “Global Health” — which was originally in The World Community]
End of Life [combining “Aging” and “Death and Dying” (not divided into A & B)]
3. COMMUNITIES OF JUSTICE & RIGHTEOUSNESS
(could be called A JUST WORLD: POLITICAL & ECONOMIC COMMUNITIES)
Preface [combining the preface to The Political Community, The Economic Community, and The World Community]
[this next section combines The Political Community and The World Community]
Religion in Public Life [combining “Governments and the Church,” “Religious Freedom,” and “Rights of Religious Minorities” — originally in The Social Community]
Human Rights [combining “Basic Rights and Freedoms” and “Human Dignity, Rights, and Responsibilities”]
Government Responsibilities [combining “Government Responsibilities” and “Nations and Cultures”]
Migration [combining “Global Migration” and “Migrants, Immigrants and Refugees”–originally in The Social Community]
Justice, Law, and Civil Disobedience [combining “Justice and Law” and “Civil Disobedience”]
Restorative Justice and the Death Penalty [combining “Restorative Justice” and “Death Penalty”]
War and Peace [combining “War and Peace,” “Peacebuilding,” “Military Service,” and “National Power and Responsibility”]
[this next section brings in everything from The Economic Community]
Systems of Production
Trade and Investment
Labor and Employment
Corruption, Graft and Bribery
Corporate and Social Responsibility
This proposed restructure would substantially reduce the total number of sections — at which point it will be much easier to edit them even more succinctly. We won’t try to say the same thing over and over again in different places due to arbitrary category divisions. We won’t be tempted to pretend that what happens in one nation doesn’t affect the world (and vice versa). We won’t silo some issues off as affecting “the world” or “nurturing”; instead, our very structure will recognize that world concerns and at-home concerns are intricately connected with the environment, politics, and economics.
Combining paragraphs will also make the Social Principles more user-friendly. For example, our statements on gender would not be divided into “Gender Equality,” “Marriage & Divorce” and “Reproductive Health” in The Nurturing Community and “Rights of Women & Girls” and “Rights of Men & Boys” in The Social Community.
A side benefit is that “Human Sexuality” and “Rights of All Sexual Orientations and Gender Identities” could be placed side-by-side in the same section. This would make General Conference legislative committees easier to navigate. (Ha.)
I’m interested in your own thoughts and reflections on this revision. But more importantly, I know that the General Board of Church and Society is interested in your feedback. So if you agree with me or not, go read the proposal and comment there!
This post is the first part of a five-part series on the United Methodist Social Principles: