Examining John Wesley for contemporary answers is a difficult task. He was a highly-educated member of the upper crust of British society, who became known for preaching, teaching, and generally ministering to the dregs of society. He defended the British empire to the hilt (citing 1 Peter 2:17’s admonition to “fear God, honor the emperor” when considering the question of the American revoltion; yet near the end of his life he supported the anti-slavery work of Wilberforce and his allies. He was a moral elitist, expecting extreme piety from his followers, but wrote and preached of a God of grace and love.
This was not a one-dimensional man. Much like Jesus, contemporary interpretations of Wesley tend to tell us more about the interpreters than the subject of study.
Wesley’s disciples are a diverse lot; if all you knew about Methodists’ political beliefs came from the General Board of Church and Society, you would think we were a left-of-center gang. But Methodists and other Wesleyans run the gamut, from left to center to right, to those with Anabaptist sympathies (think followers of Hauerwas) who don’t give a damn about politics in the usual sense. This political variance is also liturgical; walk into UMC or AME Church on a Sunday morning, and you could think you are in a Catholic, Southern Baptist, or charismatic church. Because our Bishops and Discipline do not regulate our worship in any meaningful way (despite the presence of an excellent Book of Worship), you really never know what you are going to get going into any church in the Wesleyan tradition, and especially in the UMC. But I digress.
Was Wesley a radical? Many pastors and other theologians since the 1960’s (and with renewed vigor following the Bush/Obama turn) have tried to make Wesley into a champion for any host of social causes. We love our “prophetic” religion so long as “prophetic” easily translates into the categories of contemporary politics; “speaking truth to power” is a phrase so vastly overused by puerile master’s students it should cause one’s bile to rise. In fact, many seem to think that being “prophetic” just means being “against,” against what is established, against anything and everything – but especially politics and politicians. Many Methodists fall into this pseudo-theology quite happily. But was Wesley much of a radical? Like my entire generation, would he go gaga for the reflections of Jon “I’m a comedian so I can say whatever I want and claim nobody should take me seriously even though half of young people get all their news from me” Stewart?
Researching last week’s sermon gave me pause. Consider this reflection on Luke 13:32, in which Jesus calls the corrupt Herod a “fox”:
32. ‘And he said, Go and tell that fox’ – With great propriety so called, for his subtilty and cowardice. ….But let us carefully distinguish between those things wherein Christ is our pattern, and those which were peculiar to his office. His extraordinary office justified him in using that severity of language, when speaking of wicked princes, and corrupt teachers, to which we have no call; and by which we should only bring scandal on religion, and ruin on ourselves, while we irritated rather than convinced or reformed those whom we so indecently rebuked. (Emphasis added)
Thinking about the lack of decent discourse in American politics today, I found Wesley profoundly helpful. As Christians, even at our most prophetic, our goal should be to “convince or reform” those with whom we disagree, not simply make them a mockery. The hatemongering we saw for years in response to W’s presidency, and now with Obama, should be enough for anyone to see to need for Wesley’s approach to how we speak of and to our ‘princes’. Was Wesley a radical? Look at the man’s portrait! (Translation: probably not.) Would Wesley drool for the observations of Jon Stewart? Doubtful. But he should give us pause as pastors, theologians, and – dare I say! – bloggers. Christ certainly had business rebuking, mocking, and talking down to rulers and authorities. Is that our vocation?