Reacting to Charlottesville: What Would John Wesley Do?

The Power and Accountability of our Baptismal Vows:

First Steps Toward Learning to Resist Evil, Injustice, and Oppression

While I did not have to preach on Sunday, August 14th, I did follow those of you who are former students and colleagues as you struggled with making changes to your sermons when the lectionary text – the story of Peter’s attempt to walk on the water – or your sermon series had to be interrupted because the message just wasn’t going to work. Bishops issued challenging statements and offered solace to clergy and members of their conferences; Bishop Ough, president of the Council of Bishops, issued a strong and compelling statement on behalf of the council to the whole church.  The Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, general secretary of the General Board of Church and Society issued a strong letter calling on the attorney general and fellow United Methodist, Jeff Sessions to honor his baptismal vows and use his office to address issues of racial equity and injustice. The General Commission on Religion and Race issued an eloquent statement that identified the deeper issues of hatred and bigotry that are buried within the protests against the removal of the monuments.

And throughout this past week, the sermon postings, and facebook messages continued the conversation.   

We were reminded of our Social Principles and its definition of racism [¶162. A)] as references upon which your clarion calls for United Methodists were based. The words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were quoted. But our baptismal vows were raised over and over again as the basis for United Methodist response.

  • Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sin? 
  • Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? 

The most compelling thing about the use of our Baptismal vows in this set of circumstances is that when we were baptized or when we renew our baptismal vows, we answer this question before we claim Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior! This commitment comes before we stake our claim on Jesus! This is not a commitment that grows out of a long journey of discipleship that seeks perfection in love.  This commitment to repent and resist is a response to God’s prevenient grace and our awareness and acceptance of his justifying grace in our lives.

So we are called to resistance – whether we think we are ready or not! Our commitment to Jesus Christ is dependent on it – our commitment to Jesus Christ requires it, prior to publically making the claim that Jesus is Savior and Lord.

So, of course we were all called by our United Methodist leaders and pastors to resist – to speak out and stand up against the evil, injustice, and oppression we witnessed in the messages of the white supremacists, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and KKK members who marched.

Many United Methodists did stand and protest against the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. United Methodist clergy wore vestments and stood along the curbs; at least one church was ground zero for medical care. I am sure that others were involved that I don’t know about. I am very thankful to you and grateful to God for your witness and ongoing testimony.

Many Methodists, clergy and lay in Boston, just this past weekend showed up and marched – several thousand more than the several hundred participants in the “freedom of speech” rally.

Marching is one form of standing up, of showing up – to resist, to speak truth to power, to let your “yes” mean “yes” and your “no” mean “no.” And no, I am not taking Matthew 5.37 out of context, for when we march we are doing the opposite of swearing falsely. We are proclaiming with both body and voice what we believe about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

It is important to know that Methodists have engaged in outspoken protest off and on for two hundred years in the US. US Methodists led abolitionist rallies in the North prior to the Civil War. Methodists led and marched in the temperance rallies and marches (the original purpose of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, TN, for example).  Methodists marched in the women’s suffrage marches and in the labor marches of the early 1900’s. Methodist clergy families in the south had crosses burned on their lawns for speaking up and for standing up during Civil Rights movement. Many marched in the anti-death penalty marches of the 1970’s. And many Methodists have been involved in contemporary marches and rallies regarding LGBTQ, immigration, and women’s concerns.

Rallies and marches are not new to Methodism. And there will be more times when some of us are called to the streets to let our “yes” mean “yes” and our “no” mean “no”.

And I am one who has been compelled to march on occasion.  But, I will also be the first to say that marching is something I do as much for me, whether it be catharsis or self-expression, as it is for standing up with others, with one united voice, in resistance or in support of something.

I encourage you to prayerfully consider whether you might be called to stand up and show up in this way. Be sure that you have prayed and studied our Social Principles about non-violence and civil disobedience, and know your limits.  But resistance involves far more than taking off a day or a weekend to engage in public proclamation.

And some of us are not called to marching, and some of us can’t march or go to rallies.

While I surely endorse participating in marches, we as Methodists don’t get off that easily.

I have a very Methodist suggestion for next steps, especially if you have not ever sensed before that your journey of faithful discipleship has involved resistance to evil, injustice, and oppression. What I offer here is a simple Wesleyan process of discernment about how to become involved. And I encourage you to do this with a small group of others – a prayer group, a covenant group, yes, a lot like a Wesleyan class meeting.

Using Wesley’s “General Rules” (¶104 BOD) – do no harm; do good; and practice the means of grace – begin a process of serious introspection about the ways in which you do harm, do good, and be able to be sustained through the means of grace as you address your own internal issues and opportunities for transforming the world by standing up against racism, bigotry, and privilege*.

Why the “General Rules”? These were Wesley’s guides for people joined together in class meetings who were earnestly pursuing their salvation. They could not yet answer that next question about Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord with a full, earnest, and joyful heart. They were mostly seeking assurance of their salvation while they were engaged in the class meetings. These were not yet, well-practiced, deeply faithful, sanctified and perfected Christians. They needed a guiding form to their practice of prayerful introspection.

“Do no harm.” Ask each other, “How have I done harm by not resisting evil, injustice, and oppression?” “When have I done harm by ignoring or overlooking a situation in which bigotry, injustice, or oppression was experienced?” “How have I done harm by not even realizing what I was seeing?” “When have I done harm by writing off the meaning of privilege* in our society?” “How have I hurt another as I misused or ignored my own power – either unintentionally or even on purpose – when engaging with or being in relationship with others?”

“Why does ‘this form’ of evil, injustice, and oppression call out to me for action when ‘that other one’ does not?” “What gets triggered in my soul when this kind of issue breaks open in our society?” 

“Do good.” Ask each other: “How and where do I start to “do good?” “How do I learn to see and respond to the everyday, but no less important experiences of racist and bigoted (sometimes conscious, sometimes clueless) encounters that take place every day?” “How may I become intentional about initiating thoughtful and respectful engagement with others who are different from me?” “What do I need to become more centered, more courageous, more open to listening to the different journeys of others and holding others accountable for their behavior?” And then begin to do them.

“Practice the Means of Grace.” Ask each other: “Do we take seriously the Prayer of Confession in the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper?” If you are a pastor, ask yourself, “How do I shortchange my congregation when I eliminate the Prayer of Confession from the liturgy?” Question what does the Open Table really stand for in our church? How often do we offer a renewal of our Baptismal vows? How often might we fast and pray as we reflect on these issues? When can my congregation begin conversations and share public worship with congregations? Where do we find guidance for deep searching of the Scriptures and Bible Study on these matters?

The General Rules provide a basis for strengthening the vitality of our piety through a social (communal) commitment to holiness, so that we can be wholly, fully present, and prepared to stand up against evil, injustice, and oppression in our every-day lives, in our communities, and in the world. This is NOT too grandiose a statement for United Methodists. Through the freedom and power that Jesus Christ gives us, we are called, unabashedly to resist. So now, it is time, as the Church, to do it.

BN: The Southern Poverty Law Center has a great space on their website for identifying how we can stand up and against bigotry in our day to day encounters with others. Go here:

* Brene Brown in her “Fb live” presentation of August 14th (10:50am) defines privilege succinctly as “unearned rights” that are accrued to persons because of particular characteristics. Used in this conversation, it has nothing to do with how hard a person has had to work – or not – to achieve success or meet one’s goals in life.

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