by Ken Sehested
24 February 2019
Today’s hard news from the United Methodist General Conference made me remember something a friend (and United Methodist pastor) wrote some years ago about another travesty in the Wesleyan tradition.
“John Wesley recognized such violence hidden in the clean and tidy profits of slave traders and owners. He exposed it, addressing them with the fire of a prophet: ‘Thy hands, thy bed, thy furniture, thy house, thy lands are at present stained with blood.’
“He drew the Methodist societies effectively into abolitionism. The ‘General Rules’ [of the Methodist movement] began with the commitment to give evidence of salvation by ‘Doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is generally practiced.’ ‘Doing no harm’ is an 18th century synonym for nonviolence. . . .
“The founding conference in the US called for the expulsion of any member participating in the slave trade . . . little by little that commitment fell to the temptations of mainline compromise. By 1816, a committee reported to General Conference that ‘in relation to slavery, little can be done to abolish a practice so contrary to the principles of moral justice . . .the evil appears past remedy. . . .’” (Bill Wylie-Kellermann, “Of Violence and Hope: Death Undone,” Response magazine)
This quote’s purpose is not to make anyone feel better. It’s simply a reminder that days like today are not new—and they will likely happen again in the future. What I am sure of is that, now and in the future, those steeled by Wesley’s courageous gospel vision are resilient and will continue to be troublesome to the wall builders. Today’s evil “appears past remedy.” But only for a time. Times-up is coming. Attune sorrowful hearts to that melody that can only be heard by storm-stilled attention.
No doubt more than a few will respond to this insult by joining the ranks of the “dones”—as in, I’m outta’ here, done with the church altogether. If so, I urge you to resist the temptation to play solitaire in your spiritual life. Find another community of conscience and conviction, one that actually gathers, whether explicitly oriented to some faith tradition or not.
Too much of the “nones” tradition, of those claiming no religious affiliation, is fueled by the increasing isolationist tendencies that plague modernity in all its forms. The powers that be want to turn us all into consumers. That kind of “freedom” is the worst kind of bondage.
As Wendell Berry says, “It is not from ourselves that we learn to be better than we are.”
The expansive dream of the Beloved Community to which we pledge allegiance is but an empty slogan unless rooted in actual communities that, in one way or another, involve entangling with others. That’s how our choices refine and our voices resound.
Remember one more wise word from Wesley: There are no “Holy Solitaries . . . no holiness but social holiness.”
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