What sort of theology could we see in the Social Principles? In part two of this series, I argued that political discourses are inadequate for theologically grounding our Social Principles. Better theological themes include:
- unmerited grace of God
- conviction of the Holy Spirit
- individual and social sin, as well as sins of commission and omission
- repenting of evil (see Baptismal Covenant)
- liberation by the God of the oppressed
- prophetic themes of justice and righteousness
- the “already / not yet” reign of God
- beloved community
- citizenship in heaven, pilgrim people in this world
- missio Dei (mission of God) in which we participate
- forgiveness, reconciliation, and living in right relationship (see liturgies of “confession and assurance,” “passing the peace,” and “offering ourselves and our gifts to God” in our services of Word & Table)
- becoming the body of Christ, redeemed by Christ’s blood, for the sake of the world (see Great Thanksgiving)
- ecumenical positions, such as the teaching offered by the Roman Catholic Church, World Council of Churches, and World Methodist Council, with special attention to those churches with whom we are in full communion
Those are some of the broad themes that could be woven throughout the Social Principles. What follows is a list of specific theological ideas for each of the current five sections. (Please note, however, that I advocate for a new structure for a new era that would reduce the total number of sections).
The Community of All Creation
Explore themes of possession and stewardship: Are we humans “renters” of God’s possession? Or tenants? Is there autonomy of created creatures? (e.g., Does a tree belong to itself? Or does a tree belong to God and then God gives it to humans?). Metaphors of possession — even God’s possession — can become problematic.
Highlight sacrifice and vulnerability. For example, the first paragraph under “Environmental Justice” would better fit “The Community of All Creation” section preface, where it could also introduce the theme of vulnerability for all of the topics that follow.
“Balance” is rarely the theological principle we’re looking for (see the section on “Climate”), although perhaps paradox is.
The Nurturing Community
Claiming that nurturing environments is “our highest value” is too strong. Making disciples for the transformation of the world could be our highest value. Or loving God and loving neighbor could be our highest values. Creating nurturing environments is only one aspect of these values of loving discipleship.
“Culture and Identity” needs to talk about the “scandal of particularity” (The God beyond culture entered into a specific Jewish Palestinian culture at a particular time and place — this is scandalous! What does this say about culture?).
Niebuhr in the West and many postcolonial theologians in the Global South could add really valuable theological reflection to sections on “Culture and Identity.” Scripturally, this section could engage the early Christians’ struggle over Jewish & Gentile cultures, as well as Johannine engagement with “the world.” The phrase “recreate cultural norms” sounds like imitating the world, rather than “creating new cultural norms.”
In the “Reproductive Health” discussion of one’s (in)ability to conceive and intended/unplanned pregnancies, Hannah would be a great Scriptural example (1 Samuel 1) of a woman navigating this!
Our liturgy is an important (and thus far, unused) resource for theological and ethical thinking. For “Marriage and Divorce” and “Death and Dying,” the United Methodist Hymnal and United Methodist Book of Worship have amazing resources on both marriage and services of death and resurrection. It would be great to echo that language. Specifically look at the rubrics (in red) and the introductory sections. What do we think theologically happens in marriage and resurrection?
“Suicide, Death, and Dying” needs to emphasize both prevention and response. Theologically, forgiveness is an important category that needs to be included.
The Social Community
God’s choosing of vulnerability (in Jesus Christ) is an important topic to raise in the section on “Disabilities.” See Nancy Eiesland’s The Disabled God and other touchstones in (dis)ability liberation theology.
Under “Religious Minorities,” we need to add a statement of repentance: “The Church repents of its own complicity in persecuting other religions, forcible conversion, anti-Semitism, witch trials, 30 Years War, Crusades, genocide of indigenous peoples, etc.”
In the section on “Children and Young People,” we could add language regarding “children of God” (like Jesus’ urging to “become like little children” and learning from them). I highly commend the book Regarding Children by Herb Anderson, which addresses the paradox of children “already and not yet” becoming who they are — and who they are called to be.
“Aging” needs to include the topic of vulnerability (see Scripture concern for care for widows, plus Jesus’ own becoming vulnerable on our behalf). Vulnerability is part of the beauty and gift of life. Theologically, the denial of aging connects to a denial of death. Since we are a people of death and resurrection, we should have much to say about facing decline and death.
In the section on “Women and Girls,” the book of Genesis needs to be cited in the first sentence. An additional Scriptural reference could be that women were commissioned as the first preachers of the resurrection but their testimony was discounted due to patriarchal assumptions. Mujerista and womanist theologies could point out the intersectionality of oppression faced by women of color.
The Political Community
In the section “Governments and Church,” the phrase “God’s Word” is used to refer to Scripture rather than Jesus, the Word made flesh.
In the section on the “Death Penalty,” add something about Jesus Christ being unjustly executed by the state — and the lynching of Jesus never again needs to be repeated. (See, for example, James Cone).
The Economic Community
John Wesley, liked Jesus, talked so much about money! I commend the book Good News to the Poor: John Wesley’s Evangelical Economics by Ted Jennings.
The “Globalization” section could bring in apocalyptic images of Rome and Babylon (e.g., in Revelation) as warning signs of too much power in certain economies and political/national systems.
We need to add a section on transparency (e.g., “sunshine laws”). Leaders need to disclose conflicts of interest, connecting to Scriptures about shining light on dealings done in the shadows. The sections on “Equity,” “Corruption, Graft, and Bribery,” and “Corporate and Social Responsibility” should include legally requiring transparency and disclosure, rather than just putting the onus on corporations to choose to be transparent. The Hebrew prophets call us to this.
The Global Community
Under “Global Migration” and “Rights of Migrants, Immigrants, and Refugees” (which should be combined into one section), the church has wonderful traditions about being strangers and migrants in this world. (Hauerwas did not originate the concept of “resident aliens!” Cf Augustine). We also follow in the footsteps of Abraham and Sarah (called to leave their home), while longing for home (see Psalm 137).
Like in the Old Testament exile, borders have been moved without the consent of the land’s inhabitants (cf. Mexico/Texas/U.S. borders and the Philippines in 1898). This must be named in any conversation about migration. Relatedly, the Church needs to repent of complicity in settler colonialism. Again, indigenous and postcolonial theologians need to be centered.
What potential theological themes do you see? Read the Social Principles draft and offer your feedback! Feel free to copy/quote this blog post. (What I have written here is way more coherent than what I officially submitted!). We have a once-in-fifty-years opportunity to substantially revise our United Methodist Social Principles. So, please, prayerfully reflect and then share how the Spirit is leading you!
This post is the third part of a five-part series on the United Methodist Social Principles:
- Part 1: A New Structure for a New Era
- Part 2: The Inadequacy of “Rights”
- Part 3: Theological Grounding
- Part 4: Succinct, Organized, and Accessible
- Part 5: Global Relevance