One of the things that attracted me to The United Methodist Church many years ago was that professing faith means more than simply claiming Jesus as my Lord and Savior. It also means embodying my faith every day by making a positive difference in the world.
Did you know that the Methodist Episcopal Church was the first denomination to adopt a social creed in 1908? Different branches of the Methodist movement also produced social creeds in the 20th century, but it wasn’t until 1972, four years after the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church united, that The United Methodist Church adopted its first Social Principles. These principles have been revised at many subsequent General Conferences, but for the first time, the Social Principles has been completely rewritten. Six writing teams developed the draft, which will be voted upon at the May 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis. Click here to read the revised Social Principles.
During my years as a local pastor, each person in our membership classes received a copy of the Social Principles, and we would spend one session discussing how essential it is to live out the faith we claim. I always made it clear that the Social Principles are not binding upon United Methodists. Rather, they provide a springboard for discussing what it means to be a person of faith in today’s world. Our conversations were always stimulating and inspirational.
The Preface to the 2020 proposed Social Principles says, “The Social Principles are not church law. Instead, the Social Principles represent the prayerful and earnest efforts of the General Conference to speak to issues in the contemporary world from a sound biblical and theological foundation that is in keeping with the best of our United Methodist traditions.” I’d like to share some highlights of the Social Principles, where each of the four sections focuses on global relevance.
Community of All Creation
Emphasizing that God declares all creation to be good, this section reminds us of our responsibility as stewards to care for the earth. “Global warming and climate change are already creating extreme conditions that threaten the entirety of life on earth.”
The dangers of dependence on fossil fuels is noted as well as environmental exploitation, hazardous environments, industrial pollution, toxic waste dumps, and urban decay, all of which “constitute environmental racism.”
Sustainable policies and practices are urged, such as reducing carbon footprints of individuals and families, recycling, and the right of all people to have “healthy, culturally appropriate food, produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods.”
Serving as I do in a farming state, I was heartened by these statements. “We oppose the patenting of seed varieties and other organisms traditionally used in farming and agriculture. The rapidly expanding practice of patenting seed varieties and charging farmers for their use has reduced access to traditional crops and increased the indebtedness of subsistence and smaller-scale farms.”
A concern is expressed for the humane treatment of all creatures, saying that animals raised for human consumption “should be provided with healthy living conditions and sufficient food and water.” We are also called to protect “endangered and vulnerable species and preserve dwindling habitats.”
In addition, there is a new paragraph called “Protecting Space,” which emphasizes that “God’s creation encompasses not only the earth but the entire cosmos, including space…. We reject the exploitation, commodification and militarization of space…”
The Economic Community
One of the most consistent themes in the Bible is standing in solidarity with the poor.
“As a church, we recognize the importance of creating just, equitable, and sustainable economies that benefit all members of society, especially marginalized and vulnerable peoples.”
A goal of John Wesley was to improve the lives of everyone, especially those afflicted by “poverty, starvation, illiteracy, imprisonment, slavery, addiction, and disease.” This is also reflected in the statement, “We reject religious teachings that view the accumulation of wealth as a sign of God’s favor and poverty as a sign of God’s disfavor.”
Other themes in this section include the tragedy of human trafficking and child labor; socially responsible consumerism; reducing unnecessary waste; promoting just and equitable compensation; advocating for sustainability and corporate responsibility, and; reducing reliance on fossil fuels.
A new paragraph offers support for local and family farms, appreciating their value in feeding the vast majority of the world’s population while deploring the growing monopolization of agricultural production by corporations and larger agribusinesses.
I especially like the section on Sabbath and renewal time. “We recognize Sabbath as a gift from God for all people, remembering that God rested on the seventh day of Creation. We affirm the importance of taking time away from work to rest and renew the mind, body, and spirit, engage in play and recreation, and serve the needs of our communities.”
The Social Community
“The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social, no holiness but social holiness.” (John Wesley, Preface, Hymns and Sacred Poems). This section addresses how we live our faith, including the sacredness of marriage as a lifelong covenant, polygamy, divorce, substance abuse, alcohol, and tobacco. Human sexuality is not included in the proposed 2020 Social Principles because the 2020 General Conference will take that issue up separately.
There is also a section on bullying, which is an increasing problem in our schools. “We decry all forms of bullying, which consists of unwanted and aggressive behaviors toward children, youth and adults, including verbal taunts, physical violence, emotional manipulation and social intimidation.”
I appreciate a new section on Colonialism and Neocolonialism, which says,
“Colonialism refers to the practice of establishing full or partial control of other countries, tribes and peoples through conquest and exploitation. Neocolonialism continues the historic legacy of colonialism by maintaining economic, political and social control of formerly colonized nations and people…We recognize that far from being innocent bystanders, the church has often been deeply involved in colonialism and neocolonialism.”
The section on abortion has been slightly revised to say, “We recognize that…‘tragic conflicts of life with life’ may justify decisions to terminate the life of a fetus. In these limited circumstances, we support the legal option of abortion and insist that such procedures be performed by trained medical providers in clean and safe settings.”
The Political Community
“Love is the fulfilling of the law, the end of the commandment…Love is the essence, the spirit, the life of all virtue.” (John Wesley, The Circumcision of the Heart)
The last part of the Social Principles revolves around government responsibilities, civil disobedience, restorative justice, the death penalty, criminal justice, and war and military service. Noted is the critical work of the United Nations, the restoration of right relationships, the rejection of the use of war as an instrument of foreign policy, and the importance of peaceful and diplomatic means of resolution.
As United Methodists, we believe that all individuals have basic human rights and freedoms as well as responsibilities. The Social Principles ends with proclaiming the rights of children and young people; elders; women and girls; men and boys; indigenous, Native and Aboriginal communities; migrants, immigrants and refugees; people with different sexual orientations and gender identities, and religious minorities.
I thank God for the way the Social Principles challenge me to be a more faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, and I look forward to the time when they are discussed at General Conference. I’d love to hear your thoughts about our proposed Social Principles.